Jim Larranaga feels confident his No. 3-ranked University of Miami basketball team can handle its newfound success and fame because he hasn’t had to organize a pickup baseball game all season.
The veteran coach is a master at knowing exactly when his team is tensing up, and when he led George Mason’s improbable run to the Final Four in 2006, he and his staff relaxed the players by setting up baseball games with a rolled up ball of athletic tape, a blocking pad and makeshift bases.
They played in the gym. They played at airports during flight delays. Larranaga watched the anxiety melt off his players as they rounded the bases laughing. But these Hurricanes have not needed any baseball, even though they reached the highest ranking in school history, even though LeBron James and Dwyane Wade showed up at their last game, even though they all of a sudden are appearing on ESPN SportsCenter every day and being projected as a No.1 seed on March Madness bracketology websites.
Larranaga said he asked his staff recently if maybe a baseball game was in order. They shook their heads.
“If we saw signs of fatigue or signs of anxiety, we’d address it,” he said. “But right now, we see signs of hunger. These guys are hungry and yet they remain very, very humble. They understand that this is a once in a lifetime experience.”
They didn’t veer off course when they lost their season opener to Florida Gulf Coast University.
They didn’t get too high when they thumped then-top-ranked Duke by 27 points.
They didn’t get rattled by North Carolina State’s 20,000 raucous fans.
They didn’t overlook last-place Boston College.
They weren’t fazed by North Carolina’s pedigree, knocking off the Tar Heels by 26.
And they insist they are fully focused for Wednesday night’s game at Florida State, part of Rivalry Week.
“The target on our backs is bigger than ever,” sixth-year senior center Julian Gamble said. “We have to continue to pay attention to the details and the preparation.”
Larranaga said he learned from being an assistant for top-ranked Virginia in the early 1980s that the higher a team is ranked, the harder it has to work.
“You get everybody’s best shot,” Larranaga said. “There’s no sneaking up on anybody anymore.’’
They certainly won’t be sneaking up on the Seminoles, who are led by former UM coach Leonard Hamilton.
He is well aware that the Hurricanes are 19-3 and 10-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, that they haven’t lost since Christmas, that they are the first team ever to beat Duke and North Carolina by 25-plus points in the same season, and that they received 17 first-place votes in this week’s Associated Press poll.
The Noles (13-10, 5-5) also realize that upending the red-hot Canes is exactly the kind of signature win they are seeking after a 71-46 road loss against Wake Forest. After that game, Hamilton said the only thing his team did right was put on its uniforms. But FSU has a history of upsetting top-5 teams.
Last season, it beat No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 North Carolina and No. 4 Duke.
Miami has not won a game in Tallahassee since it pulled off an 84-76 overtime win on Jan. 29, 2006.
This group of Hurricanes could end that losing streak. UM beat FSU 71-47 when the teams played in Coral Gables on Jan. 27.
“I like watching them because they have a level of maturity and poise and confidence, and they do a lot of things right,’’ Hamilton said. “From a defensive standpoint, they are in the positions they need to be in. It’s like they’re reading each other’s minds. Offensively, they have that balance with perimeter shooting and big strong guys inside. I don’t know if I’ve seen a team shoot as well as they did against Carolina.
“If they’re not the hottest team in America, they’re one of the top two or three. In the ACC, they’re the team to beat.’’
Larranaga is urging his players to enjoy the ride.
“This is what every program strives for,” Larranaga said. “Carolina and Duke have this every year. It’s a little different for us.”
The coach said he was “a little surprised’’ at how many people recognized him at the Heat-Lakers game Sunday. But he keeps the fame in perspective. “I went to Publix and nobody knew me.”
If the Canes keep winning, those anonymous Publix runs will end.