This weekend in Houston marks the first Final Four appearance in Miami Hurricanes men's basketball history. It's a huge moment for a program that's had its share of success in recent years but largely been overshadowed by college football, professional sports and alligator sightings in the South Florida zeitgeist.
While this is the U's first trip to the semifinals, there is one notable person on the staff with Final Four experience. Head coach Jim Larrañaga's George Mason University team was on the brink of a title in 2006, in one of the most memorable March Madness runs in recent history.
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 26, 2023
While the Patriots — led by Jai Lewis, Will Thomas and Lamar Butler — fell just short of being the last team standing, their overtime upset of No. 1 UConn in the Elite Eight remains one of the most improbable outcomes in tournament history. George Mason trailed by 12 late in the first half, and it seemed as if the magic had run out. But the undersized Patriots flipped the script in the second half, putting UConn on its heels and sending the heavily favored Huskies back to Storrs.
Seventeen years later, another Larrañaga team will hope to end a different UConn team's season this Saturday night in Houston.
Larrañaga's coaching journey has been decades in the making. He's an old-school basketball junkie from a different era who has been able to adapt to modern players and styles at every stage of his career.
On the eve of his latest Final Four appearance, let's take a look at the journey that brought Larrañaga to this point.
Larrañaga's Early Years - From The Bronx to Providence to The South
Like Dolph Schayes, Nate "Tiny" Archibald and Kemba Walker, Larrañaga is part of the strong tradition of basketball figures hailing from the Bronx. After playing at legendary Archbishop Molloy High School, Larrañaga made his way to Providence College. He played at Providence from 1968 to 1971 and was even the Friars' leading scorer for two seasons. Unsurprisingly, the future coach was team captain his senior season.
After graduating, Larrañaga immediately began to pursue a coaching career, starting out as a graduate assistant at little Davidson College in North Carolina. The Southern Conference must have been a far cry from Parkchester and Providence, but Larrañaga excelled, coaching the freshman team to a 47-12 record. This is all long before the days of one-and-done freshmen, when it was commonplace for recruited players to spend a season playing on the freshman team before joining the varsity club.
After a brief stint as a head coach with Division II American International College (which is totally an oxymoron of a name for a school, yeah?), Larrañaga rejoined his Davidson boss, Terry Holland, who was named the head coach at University of Virginia. In seven seasons at Virginia, Larrañaga coached the likes of Ralph Sampson, Olden Polynice and Rick Carlisle en route to two Final Four trips.
The Jump to Head Coach
In 1986, Larrañaga was named the head coach at Bowling Green State University. While the Falcons never made an NCAA Tournament under his 11-year tenure, Bowling Green did go to back-to-back NIT Tournaments. Life in the mid-majors: If you don't win your conference tournament, you usually don't get to go to the Big Dance.
Larrañaga jumped to George Mason University in 1997. He turned the moribund program around almost immediately, winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in 1999 and 2001, and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in both seasons.
Of course, it's the 2006 team that really put Larrañaga on the map for most college basketball fans. That Patriots team was 22-6 at the end of the regular season and even sneaked into the AP Top 25. But an early exit in the CAA Conference Tournament left their NCAA hopes in doubt. Fortunately for Patriots fans and college hoops fans alike, the selection committee had the wisdom to award George Mason the first at-large bid of any CAA team in 20 years. The rest of the 2006 run is history. Upsets over Michigan State and North Carolina led to a Sweet 16 date with Wichita State that just happened to be in Washington, D.C., only a short drive from George Mason's campus.
And, of course, there was the big upset over top-seeded UConn. If you've got 90 minutes to spare, here's a lovely trip down memory lane, replete with the baggy shorts of the mid-aughts and an All-American Rejects song underneath the player introductions.
Moving To The Big Leagues
After two more NCAA appearances with George Mason in 2008 and 2011, the mid-major whisperer finally got an opportunity to coach with the big dogs of college basketball. The University of Miami basketball program is mostly known for being the little brother of the University of Miami football program. Still, when the ACC school called Larrañaga, the veteran coach seized the opportunity to ply his trade alongside the likes of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
In just his second season at Miami, Larrañaga coached the Canes to a regular season ACC title and a Sweet 16 appearance. That 2013 season was the longest postseason run at Miami since 2000 and cemented Larrañaga's role at Miami. Some questioned whether the old-school Bronx native, who'd spent almost 30 years coaching at the mid-major level, could excel in a power conference. But Larrañaga put those questions to bed, proving that his style of coaching can work with anyone.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2023
He may not recruit the flashiest freshman phenoms or send an absurd number of players to the NBA like some of his counterparts, but Larrañaga's teams consistently perform to the best of their abilities. Over his long and winding career, he's earned the respect and praise of players and coaches from around the country.
He's also one of the few old-guy coaches who successfully pulls off the athleisure look!
Now, with a Miami team that's already pulled off a few major upsets, Larrañaga has a chance to really cement his name among the all-time greats of college hoops. He's already become just the 15th coach in NCAA men's history to lead two different programs to the Final Four. Can the Canes get two more victories so we see Larrañaga cutting down the nets in Houston? Or will UConn get vengeance for the George Mason upset from 17 seasons ago?
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