HARRIS: Jim Larranaga’s Miami miracle has familiar feel

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

During the first 20 minutes of Miami’s practice session Wednesday, Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga wasn’t on the Verizon Center court.

He was off to the side, near a tunnel that leads off the court, greeting a passel of well-wishers. There were players from the George Mason team Larranaga led to the Final Four in 2006. Some Mason staff members, some Miami boosters, some people he got to know while living in the area so long.

Rock stars don’t get the kind of reception Larranaga got, and he greeted them all with the same wide smile he pretty much wears all the time. When Larranaga is introduced before Miami’s NCAA tournament East Region game against Marquette on Thursday night, the applause is likely to be very loud.

Pain-free after having both hips replaced — the most recent only 10 months ago — Larranaga is having the time of his life. After 14 years at Mason, he headed south and led the Hurricanes to the ACC regular-season and tournament championships in this his second season at Miami.

They’re 29-6 and seeded second in the region. Another trip to the Final Four isn’t out of the question for Larranaga, though the Canes’ current season will go down as one of college basketball’s success stories no matter what happens here.

“Fun is the best medicine of all,” Larranaga said.

Larranaga is fun, from the way he gets into coaching his teams to play as hard as they do, to his sometimes corny quips and sometimes lengthy stories. He always has time to talk, always has a tale to tell.

Miami’s veterans knew they were getting a good coach when Larranaga was hired to replace Frank Haith. “We saw what did he at George Mason. His reputation was very good coming in,” said forward Kenny Kadji.

They had no idea of the complexity of the man with whom they were about to fall in love. He’s a coach, a father figure, a philosopher and, at times, a bit of a nut job. When Miami beat Illinois last weekend to earn its trip here, Larranaga spontaneously broke into his version of the Ali Shuffle. Boxer Muhammad Ali was one of his childhood heroes.

That sent his players into hysteria but didn’t surprise them. Kadji and guard Rion Brown said Larranaga doesn’t just talk to his players about going after loose balls. He dives after them himself. He doesn’t talk about rebounding, he boxes and out and grabs them himself. He doesn’t talk about taking charges. He goes on the court and takes them.

Plus, he dances.

“He’s just a very energized man,” Kadji said. “You see that, you can’t help but go out and give 100 percent all the time.”

Said Brown: “He’s throwing balls off the walls, off the ceiling, he’s diving on the floor. When you have a coach putting out that kind of energy, it makes you want to go out as hard as you can. It’s crazy, man, but that energy is lovely.”

For the longest time, Larranaga appeared to be a lifer at Mason. He took over a moribund program and turned it into a consistent winner. His family loved the area. It wasn’t a bad place to retire.

“He loved it at George Mason,” said assistant coach Chris Caputo, who spent nine years with Larranaga in Fairfax.

But when Alan Merten decided in early 2011 to retire as Mason’s president, Larranaga started thinking about moving. The two were very close. When Haith left Miami for Missouri, Larranaga made his move.

“When President Merten retired, that was kind of a sign for me that things were going to change and maybe it was time for me to make a change,” Larranaga said.

Fairfax’s loss, Miami’s gain. Watching Miami work out Wednesday was not dissimilar to watching a Mason practice from the Larranaga era. When he finally took the court, Larranaga gathered the team at midcourt for a brief talk. No telling what he finished it with, but the players broke the huddle laughing.

Tony Skinn sat in the stands and watched with a smile. The point guard on Mason’s Final Four team, he also saw a lot of the Patriots in the Hurricanes. And he loved watching his former coach work.

“A lot of people might not have imagined them being here,” Skinn said. “Having been under his watch, I can see it. He’s such a good coach, such a good motivator. You see how much he gives to it, you have to do the same. You have to give him the same thing he’s giving you.”

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