- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2016

FAIRFAX — Jim Larranaga stood at center court at EagleBank Arena, precisely in the same spot he did so many times 10 years ago, with his players huddled around him.

The only difference is that back then, Larranaga was coaching at George Mason, which made an improbable run to the Final Four in 2006 and flipped the college basketball world upside down.

Larranaga returned to the familiar setting with Miami on Monday for a practice before the start of the ACC tournament, which begins on Tuesday at Verizon Center.

“For the team, it was just practice, it’s nothing new to them,” Larranaga said. “For the coaches, it’s nostalgic. You immediately remember, ‘Hey, this is our bench when we were coaching at George Mason. When we went out to the circle, we stood in the same spots I did for 14 years.”

Miami (24-6, 13-5 ACC) enters the tournament as the No. 3 seed and will play on Thursday against an opponent to be determined. The Hurricanes ended their regular season with a 77-62 loss to Virginia Tech, but the focus now is preparing for a week of competition against some of the best teams in the ACC ahead of the NCAA tournament.

“I know, having coached against those teams from Jan. 2 until this past Saturday, that there wasn’t a game we went into that we thought our opponent wasn’t every bit as talented or as good as we were,” Larranaga said. “It was who played better that day, and the same is going to be true this weekend. There are some teams that play a little more consistently like our team did — [North] Carolina, Virginia. But, by this time of the year, everybody in the ACC is really good and capable of going on a major roll not only in the ACC tournament, but the NCAA tournament. We have eight or nine teams very capable of winning a national championship.”

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Since August, well before No. 11 Miami emerged as one of the better teams in the country, it was planned that it would practice at George Mason this week. It was a welcoming return for Larranaga and his coaching staff, including associate head coach Chris Caputo and director of basketball operations James Johnson, who were both on Larranaga’s staff at George Mason, but it also made sense from a logistical standpoint.

After playing Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday, it was best for the Hurricanes to stick around rather than return to Miami and then have to fly to Washington days later. The tournament coincides with Miami’s spring break, which also allowed the team to stay.

“We were already three-quarters of the way up here,” Larranaga said. “We decided we’d have some practices and the best place to do that was George Mason University. We have a lot of friends still here and are very familiar with the area. [First-year coach] Dave Paulsen and his staff were very accommodating.”

Larranaga and the team dined at Brion’s Grille — the same place he ate after every home game while coaching at George Mason — on Sunday night. Before Monday’s practice, Larranaga pointed at the Final Four banner in the rafters, reminding his team of what it takes to accomplish what the Patriots did.

“At this time of year, we’re into March and March Madness and everyone talks about making the NCAA, the ‘Big Dance,’ and playing great once you get there,” Larranaga said. “Everyone’s goal is to get to the Final Four. I just pointed out the banner that hangs in the arena and the sacrifices and the joy that surrounded that team. We’ll be talking about it a little bit more after the ACC tournament. The biggest thing for our team is we’ve had a great regular season, and now we want to have a great performance in the postseason.”

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