The Curious Case of Coach Larranaga: COY Frontrunner

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In the similarly titled movie starring Brad Pitt, the titular character, Benjamin Button, gets younger and younger throughout the span of the movie.

In the Miami Hurricanes version the team gets better and better the longer Coach Larranaga is around. If the Coach L was radioactive, then the controversial theory of hormesis holds water. He’s reverse kryptonite. Coach is a veritable smelter of basketball talent, driving out impurities inside a crucible of his own design. Let’s take a closer look at the case Coach Jim Larranaga is making for the NCAA Coach of the Year award.

New Beginnings: There was no joy in ‘Caneville after Frank Haith won the award last year. Hurricane fans were overjoyed that Haith left for Missouri paving the way for the Coach Larranaga hire. Fans were troubled by long-standing habits prior teams couldn't seem to shake.

The Eye Test: When Coach L arrived in Coral Gables less than 2 years ago, the ‘Canes consistently dropped close games, turned the ball over at an alarming rate, had difficulty in-bounding the ball in key situations, had difficulty breaking the press, and often played porous zone defense. Now they win close games, don’t turn the ball over much, in-bound the ball successfully in various situations, chop the press up like Danny Trejo in Machette, and are one of the best man-to-man defensive teams in the country.

Mission Briefing: Coach Larranaga was able to get his players to buy into the mission of building winning habits. The entire team stayed on campus last summer instead of going back home and spending time with their friends and family. Conclude what you want from this, but getting a team of 18-24 year olds to give-up summer vacation to practice and get themselves into peak physical conditioning is an accomplishment. The players deserve tons of credit for working hard – there is no doubt that the guidance of a coach matters. A look inside Miami's grueling workout regiment HERE

The 2nd Half: The ‘Canes have been a 2nd half team much of the year and often come out of the locker room and punish opponents in the latter frame. Recently, they’ve started to become a 1st half team as well. The 2nd half performances can be linked to Miami’s improved conditioning and adjustments made by Coach Larranaga in the locker room. It’s been amazing to watch.

Heavyweight Matchups: In head-to-head matchups with some of the premiere coaches in college basketball – Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Coach Krzyzewski – Coach Larranaga and the ‘Canes are 4-0. All 3 looked frazzled post-game. Leonard Hamilton, whose team is in a rebuilding year, was very impressed with Miami’s performance. Click on a coach to link to post-game video.

Conference Dominance: Miami is currently 18-3 and undefeated in the ACC with a sterling 10-0 mark. No Hurricane team has ever gotten off to such a start in the ACC – or the Big East for that matter. In fact, the ‘Canes are the only major conference left team this season with an unblemished conference record. As of this publication, Miami is the #3/4 team in the country in the polls.

Even Keel: The media coverage has gone from a isolated campfire into a virtual firestorm. At times just a handful of reporters showed up for media days and post-game conferences. Now the room is packed with TV cameras and getting a seat is difficult. Coach Larranaga and his staff have done a great job mitigating the effects of the massive influx of outside attention. The players are focused and look at each game as just another game.

History: When Coach Larranaga and George Mason made a magical run to the Final Four in 2006, their two best players were Tony Skinn and Jai Lewis. Both were unranked 0-star prospects. Skinn was only recruited by George Mason. In addition to George Mason, Lewis was recruited by basketball powerhouses such as Central Connecticut State, Drexel, Robert Morris, and Towson. Why is this even worth mentioning? There’s a trend here of Coach L putting players in position to maximize their abilities under the umbrella of a total team concept. If you look at the stat-lines of the 2005-2006 George Mason and the 'Canes this year, you see a lot of similarities which somewhat reflects the adherence of players to Coach L's system. The player point distributions are also similar. LarranagaBall works.

GP

MIN

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TPG

FG%

FT%

3P%

George Mason 2005-2006

35

--

69

35

14

7

4

13

.481

.664

.356

Miami Hurricanes

22

--

70

37

12

7

5

11

.458

.662

.364

Playing Field: High school players that head to the ACC are instantly upgrading their competition. Isn’t the same true for coaches? At Miami, Coach Larranaga has the opportunity to develop and recruit players that wouldn’t have considered George Mason. This is not to disrespect the Patriots – just the simple truth that the majority of basketball talent gets funneled into the 6 major conferences. You give a master chef some decent ingredients and he or she can make a great meal. You give them the finest and . . .

Undefeated: When at full-strength (no significant injuries) the 'Canes are undefeated on the season. Their loss to Florida Gulf coast is officially a footnote. Arizona is an elite team and Indiana State has defeated multiple ranked opponents. Both those teams beat Miami with a hobbled Durand Scott, an injured Reggie Johnson, and a sick Trey McKinney-Jones.

Offense: it’s impossible to remember a ‘Canes squad capable of such fluid and exciting play. Alley-oops, crisp passing, eagle-eye shooting, and now a backboard lob from Larkin to Kadji that brought LeBron James and Dwayne Wade to their feet.

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Defense: It’s been over a decade since a ‘Canes team has harassed opponents like this group does. Spectacular blocks, game-changing steals, and all-out hustle has become the norm in Coral Gables.

Upgrade: The players have gotten better. Not since the days of Leonard Hamilton have Miami players improved at such a clip. The team chemistry is evident and Coach L is the straw that stirs the drink. The 'Canes are poised, prepared, and do not give up.

After a few muddling years at Miami, DeQuan Jones had his best season and landed on the Orlando Magic after his suspension-shortened senior year.

Kenny Kadji didn’t fit somehow in Gainesville, and now he’s one of the top 4’s in the country. Kadji has also matured into one of the team's leaders.

Here's a snippet from the Swamp Things Blog at the Orlando Sentinel (1/13/2012): "He was young. He was immature. He had a lot of ups and downs, and he just figured, ‘You know what? I’ve had too many ups and downs here," said Coach Billy Donovan. "I don’t have enough invested here. I just wanna go somewhere and start over.’ And I think that’s ultimately what happened."

Durand Scott is often referred to as the 'heart and soul' of the team. He's playing the best basketball of his career and his love of the game is infectious. The senior combo-guard can do it all and is tough as nails.

Trey McKinney-Jones was best known for a ridiculous dunk against Centenary, and now he’s a stat-sheet stuffer, having his best collegiate seasons after stepping up the competition level and transferring to Miami.

Reggie Johnson looks more focused than he’s ever been. A veritable Mac Truck down low, Johnson has the ability to utterly dominate opposing big men with his size and soft touch. The trip to Hawaii cost Reggie a month of floor time with a broken thumb and really put the ‘Canes in a bind they had to fight their way out of. Hurricane fans wondered if the team was cursed. If they were, then Coach L is some type of basketball exorcist.

Julian Gamble . . . until this year, Gamble was thought of by most ‘Canes fans as a capable body to give Big Reggie Johnson some quality rest. Gamble has morphed into a shot-blocking and dunking machine with a ridiculous motor. He never stops and seems to stalk the painted area like a tattooed Terminator. He has gone up against some of the best big men in the ACC and more than held his own: he's put his name into the conversation. Gamble worked tirelessly in the off-season to build his body and expand his game and it shows.

Shane Larkin had an inconsistent freshman year – which is commonplace for almost any college-bound PG playing in the talent-rich ACC. But there were signs of potential greatness. In just his second season Larkin is a finalist for the Cousey award and leaves opposing coaches awestruck after darting from one end of the court to the other for nearly 40 minutes. Under Coach Larranaga, Larkin has learned how to control games. Coach after coach leaves the BUC remarking on Larkin's ability to get his teammates involved.

Rion Brown went through a shooting slump earlier in the year of which he is emerging from in a hurry. Even when the shots weren't falling, Brown's on-ball defense was evident as he routinely shuts down opposing scorers or forces them into difficult shots. Brown has improved noticeably in other areas of his game: passing and ball-handling. He's also been shooting the ball well the last several games which is a great sign for Miami and a bad omen for everyone else.

There are so many program firsts this season they're difficult to keep track of. The team is playing at such a high level - and if there is a profound effect of coaching on a team, that it's not just having talent - then Jim Larranaga has to be the frontrunner for not only the ACC COY award, but National COY as well.

The next home game is Feb 19th when the 'Canes host the 17-6 (7-3) Virginia Cavaliers. We shouldn't need an Operation Sellout. Let's get it done and show our appreciation to Coach Larranaga, his staff, and the Miami Hurricanes basketball squad.

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