Jim Larrañaga has been part coach, part chemist this season. One of his biggest challenges was building bonds on a basketball team with nine newcomers.
So far, his methods are working. He’s utilized butterflies and tapas. As his players have amassed together time, they’ve performed with more synchronicity.
The University of Miami’s next test is Saturday at No.12 Notre Dame. A victory would mean that the Hurricanes should return to the Top 25 rankings.
An upset of the Fighting Irish would also provide enlightenment on a team that was a big, fat question mark at the start of the season given the composition of a transitional roster with only three returning players and five transfers representing, in total, six states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, Belgium, Nigeria and Spain.
After a fast start that included a win at No.8 Florida and a No.15 perch, UM fell into a rocky period with two losses to unranked opponents but seems to have regained its rhythm after pushing then-No.3 Virginia to double overtime before losing, then pummeling No.4 Duke inside Cameron Indoor Stadium while sedating the Crazies.
“I don’t think it quite lived up to the expectations, but I think it’s because we controlled the game,” UM guard Angel Rodriguez said when asked about the atmosphere in Durham, North Carolina.
Larrañaga is confirming the reputation he gained at George Mason as one of the most resourceful coaches in college basketball. After the Duke game, he and his assistants returned to their hotel and immediately began strategizing for Notre Dame, which utilizes a four-guard offense.
“Funny thing is, Notre Dame doesn’t play small,” he said “They play guards, but their guards are big — 6-6, 6-8. Duke had 6-2, 6-2 guards which was a good matchup for Angel and Manu [Lecomte].”
Larrañaga will turn to his swing players and bigs Ivan Cruz Uceda, making his debut after sitting out 16 games awaiting eligibility clearance, and Tonye Jekiri, who is at last proving he has made the switch from soccer player to 7-foot basketball center. Teaching Jekiri how to stay out of foul trouble and “wall up” has been another of Larrañaga’s tasks.
“Tonye has improved each season and quite honestly we expected that growth and would have liked to see it sooner,” Larrañaga said.
Most impressive has been UM’s fortitude in away games, and the Hurricanes (12-4, 2-1) will need more of it as they barrel into their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. Rodriguez has emerged as the lead road warrior, having grown up playing on some fiercely territorial courts in Puerto Rico and having spent his first two seasons at Kansas State in the Big 12, where he cited Kansas and Iowa State as the most difficult arenas to visit.
Certain players, such as Rodriguez and Shane Larkin and Durand Scott before him, actually get more hyped for road games than home games, Larrañaga said.
“I think you feel more challenged,” Rodriguez said of his mentality when he enters an unfriendly gym. “Every player should feel that way.
“You shouldn’t shy away from competition.”
UM is 6-1 in the North Carolina Triangle (against Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State) the past three years.
Perhaps upcoming trips will provide more opportunities for strengthening brotherly love on a team that started as a collection of outsiders. Larrañaga devised the preseason trip to Spain as a bonding exercise.
“I’m a great believer in signs and symbols — like the U, it’s a brand,” he said. “In Spain, the best sign was the meals, and in the hotel, where the freshmen roomed with seniors.
“You don’t develop a social relationship at school; you’re too busy. But we had those 10 days together in Spain.”
In October, he arranged another memorable experience for his team. They climbed to the top step of the BankUnited Center and set 30 butterflies free. He was inspired by Phil Jackson’s references to Native American legends, which hold that butterflies bring good luck.
He had done the same butterfly release before George Mason’s 2005 Final Four run, in the hope that although they had a long way to go, “we were going to stick together and fly together.”
Larrañaga, 65, has seen plenty in four decades of coaching. He sees something powerful percolating in these players he has bonded together just five months after they had trouble pinpointing on a world map where they had all come from.
“This group has a chance to do something special, whether it’s this year or next year,” he said.