Miami's motivational Larrañaga leads another Final Four run

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Miami head coach Jim Larranaga speaks during a news conference in preparation for the Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Houston. Miami will face UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON – Begin with the end in mind.

A devotee of Franklin Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Jim Larrañaga chose Habit 2 to describe Miami's first trip to the Final Four.

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“You’ve got to have a vision of where you’re going," Larrañaga said. “It’s like putting in your GPS, your destination, and I think we put in Houston as our destination. That was going to be our road map."

Larrañaga has been down this road before.

With Larrañaga at the helm, George Mason had one of the greatest mid-major runs in NCAA Tournament history, pulling off one upset after another — and a nation of underdog fans with them — all the way to the 2006 Final Four.

“He was a teacher, he was a mentor, a wizard,” said Tony Skinn, a guard on the 2006 George Mason team who was named head coach of his alma mater on Thursday. “When you have a chance to play for a guy like that, you get the results we ended up getting. It’s not surprising he’s in this position. It’s a new group, but same Jedi master.”

Larrañaga's first Final Four run started with some Selection Sunday sweat.

The Patriots shared the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title with UNC Wilmington, but lost to Hofstra in the conference tournament semifinals. An at-large bid was their only hope to get into the NCAA Tournament.

“It was like, yeah, we’re going to watch it, but I didn’t think we’d get in,” said Folarin Campbell, a guard on the 2006 team. “We were sitting at Coach L’s house and I can remember everyone just jumping up and down, cheering. It was a great feeling.”

The good vibes kept flowing.

A No. 11 seed, George Mason pulled off its first upset by knocking off Michigan State, a Final Four team the year before.

The Patriots took down North Carolina two days later, creating a campus-wide euphoria back in Fairfax, Virginia. The jubilation exploded the next week after wins over Wichita State and UConn sent the Patriots to the Final Four for the first time.

“That school is pretty big, so you don’t always see everybody in the same space,” Skinn said. “When we came back, you would have thought they enrolled an extra 100,000 people while we were gone.”

George Mason lost to eventual national champion Florida in the Final Four but the madness-inducing run still endears — just like it will for the Hurricanes.

Miami has long been considered a football school. The men's basketball program? It was once disbanded due to lack of interest on campus.

Leonard Hamilton brought the program back to life in the late 1990s. Now Larrañaga has carried the Hurricanes into uncharted waters.

The 73-year-old has led Miami to the Sweet 16 four times, including its first trip to the Elite Eight a year ago. The Hurricanes took another big first step with an Elite Eight win over Texas last weekend.

Students jumped into campus lakes and ponds. More than 100 people were waiting when the Hurricanes landed around 3 a.m. And the team had a huge sendoff before flying to Houston to face UConn in the national semifinals on Saturday.

“That was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Miami forward Anthony Walker, wearing a black Final Four cowboy hat. “The energy has been electric and I guarantee you there will be a lot of Miami fans in that building.”

The two deep March runs 17 years apart had similar trajectories. The teams are similar as well.

An ACC school, Miami attracts higher-level recruits, yet the Hurricanes are undersized, gritty, play hard no matter the score — just like the Patriots were. Tenacity helped Miami rally from a 16-point deficit to beat Texas, just like the 2006 George Mason team did against North Carolina.

Larrañaga is the thread binding the two teams in history.

He's a motivator and storyteller who also listens. He's big on motivational quotes and Eastern philosophy, even if his players don't always understand what he's talking about. He takes joy in his players' personal successes and even dances with them after big wins — maybe even a little better now than when he was dealing with hip pain 17 years ago.

“He just knows how to motivate guys,” Campbell said.


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