As the University of Miami men’s basketball players loaded onto the charter bus in front of their gym Tuesday, the possibilities for their final destination seemed limitless.
The UM roster is ideally suited to meet the challenges of the NCAA Tournament. Their journey could take them all the way to the Final Four in Houston.
But first, coach Jim Larrañaga intends to make a stop at the Newport Creamery in Providence, Rhode Island, site of the Hurricanes’ first-round game against Buffalo on Thursday night.
“Gotta have an Awful Awful,” Larrañaga said, explaining the name of a famous local milkshake. “Chocolate is my favorite.”
Larrañaga knows the area well, having starred for the Providence College Friars from 1968 to 1971. That should add to the comfort level for third-seeded UM, which is on a collision course with No. 6 Arizona on Saturday, then with No. 2 Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen and No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight in Louisville if the top seeds keep winning in the South Regional.
Can a team bolstered by Awful Awful milkshakes and senior poise pull off a couple of upsets?
Larrañaga’s 2013 UM team fell two steps shy of the Final Four. This team is better.
Plus, Larrañaga owns the trademark on coaching an often-doubted, usually underestimated program to stupendous heights. No one can forget the 2006 tournament, when he was the maestro behind No. 11 seed George Mason’s climb past No. 6 seed Michigan State, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 Connecticut before losing to No. 3 Florida 73-58 in the Final Four semifinal. He knows how to win personnel matchups and keep a team relaxed. This season, the 66-year-old Larrañaga has been breaking out dance moves in the locker room.
The Hurricanes went 25-7 this year by playing to their strengths: Experience and versatility.
UM cannot sign one-and-done NBA Draft phenoms year in and year out the way that Kentucky and Duke can. Larrañaga has circumvented that trend by building an older team, one that can rely on guile and chemistry through ebb or flow, one that can withstand the pressure and unpredictability of March Madness. Continuity can prevail, as teams such as Wisconsin, Florida and Connecticut have proved in recent tournaments, although it is tough to beat stars such as Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor.
UM has three senior starters. Three starters are transfers who got an extra year of seasoning — Angel Rodriguez from Kansas State, Sheldon McClellan from Texas and Kamari Murphy from Oklahoma State.
An older, savvier Rodriguez should mean a less emotional leader, less prone to angry reactions and more able to keep his cool. A point guard who can steer through the chaos and noise of the tournament is a key to success.
So while Kentucky and Duke find themselves shallow and panting this year as a result of constant turnover in their programs, UM calls on its depth.
“We came together as a team last year in the NIT and it’s paying off,” McClellan said, describing how he and his teammates play paint-ball together, go swimming together and hang out on the road watching NBA games. “Our friendship is another reason we jell so well on the court.”
Larrañaga has also assembled a roster of interchangeable parts, players with an array of skills complemented by a few role players. McClellan, Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton can shoot, drive, invent and cause havoc on defense. Murphy does the dirty work. Tonye Jekiri anchors the defense, alters shots and ignites the offense with his rebounds. Ivan Cruz Uceda spreads the floor and shoots three-pointers.
“My most challenging decision-making comes during the game in terms of rotation,” Larrañaga said. “We usually go with an eight-man rotation. For most coaches the ideal is seven, with one perimeter sub and one post sub. But we’ve got Tonye, one of the best rebounders in the ACC, and Sheldon, the most efficient offensive player on the team. It’s hard to leave them on the bench.”
Larrañaga scrutinizes two sets of statistics that his assistants shuttle to him during games: defensive and offensive efficiency.
“Those are numbers I want in my ear throughout the game,” Larrañaga said. “I need to hear if we should get out of the zone because we’re getting drilled. I’m trying to track minutes. I’m looking at plus-minus and which units are producing.
“But you have to examine the raw numbers in combination with other things. One time I scored a 70 on an exam and I was absolutely beside myself until I found out I had the highest grade in the class. Too much data is always a risk, which is why I surround myself with a great staff. I value intellect.”
UM might not have NBA lottery picks, but it possesses the components of coaching, collaboration and cleverness to go farther than ever in 2016, even all the way to Houston. Let’s see how long Larrañaga can keep dancing.