Jim Larranaga is a self-described numbers nerd. Always has been. He loved arithmetic in grade school and majored in math and economics at Providence College, where he was the basketball team’s leading scorer his sophomore and junior years.
If there was a stat or shooting percentage to be calculated, he was all over it. When he and his wife, Liz, go out to dinner with other couples, he figures out the tip.
It’s no wonder, then, that the University of Miami men’s basketball coach is obsessed with kenpom.com, a college basketball statistics website run by Ken Pomoroy, a Salt Lake City meteorologist who compiles a statistical archive that analyzes all 345 Division I teams on a possession-by-possession basis. There isn’t a news conference that goes by in which Larranaga doesn’t refer to kenpom.com. He even has the site’s mobile app on his iPhone for whenever he gets the urge to check his favorite stat: points per possession.
Larranaga, 63, also was one of the first college coaches to use Synergy Sports, an Internet-based video-scouting index that logs every possession of every game, allowing coaches to zero in on team and player tendencies. You want to compare a player’s spot-up shooting percentage with a dribble and without a dribble? No problem. Percentages going left? Going right? It’s all there.
The coach leaves nothing to chance. He writes everything down. His entire life over the past 20 years — every appointment, practice, personal goal — is chronicled in his Franklin-Covey daily planners. His bible is Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Larranaga’s organizational skills, which he also requires from his staff, helped the Hurricanes (24-6, 15-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) go from afterthought to major player this season.
They were No. 2 in The Associated Press poll, the highest ranking in school history. They knocked off then-No. 1 Duke by 27 points, the first time a UM team had beaten a No. 1. They became the first team since the ACC’s inception in 1953 to beat Duke and North Carolina by 25 points in the same season. They drew a record five sellout home crowds. And, they are the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament after winning the regular-season conference title Saturday with a 62-49 win over Clemson.
Larranaga’s staff is atypical. Most teams have an assistant who coaches guards, an assistant who coaches big men, and they rotate the scouting duties. Larranaga takes a page from football. Eric Konkol is his offensive coordinator. Michael Huger is the defensive coordinator. Chris Caputo is the master scout, fully responsible for the scouting reports for every game.
The idea, according to all three assistants, is uniformity in terminology and message. They have found that players like routine and familiarity. Rather than have every third scouting report written by a different coach, they are all in Caputo’s language.
All three coaches followed Larranaga to UM from George Mason. “We moved the store south,” Konkol said.
The Miami Herald took a peek at how Larranaga’s staff prepares for a game. Answer: Details, details, details.
Practice makes perfect
It is Tuesday afternoon, March 5, and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are coming to town to play the Hurricanes the next day. The team has gathered at BankUnited Center for a 3 p.m. practice.
In case any of the players are wondering, this is “Practice #82.” They can find that out on the upper-right corner of their Daily Practice Plan, a typed down-to-the-minute practice schedule listed in Roman numeral format:
II. Stretch (10).
III. Thought of the Day (2). “Get low. Stay low on defense.’’
IV. Fundamentals. 1. 2-Line Full Court Passing (2), 2. Celtic drill (2), 3. Rebound-war on the boards (5).
V. Defense. Shell drill. Defend Georgia Tech.
VI. Offense. Fast ball movement. Man movement. Pass to Post.
VIII. Shoot 3’s (15).
DeQuan Jones, who played for UM last season and is now with the Orlando Magic, is in town for a game against the Heat. He shows up at Hurricanes practice with Magic teammates Kyle O’Quinn and Mo Harkless. They watch and remark on the intensity and organization of the workout.
“Coach L and his staff are super organized and strategic,” Jones said. “Everything is calculated down to a T and broken down. We’d spend a block of time on each fundamental. They’d break down details like, ‘This guy shoots from the right 70 percent of the time,’ stuff like that. As a player, that paints a picture of what you’re guarding, what to expect. Almost to the point you know what the offensive player’s going to do before they even do it. It made the games easy. That’s one thing I noticed. Practice was always the hardest thing.
“They slowed the game down and broke down the Xs and Os. This coaching staff made me a better player, made me respect the game.”
Larranaga’s practices are spirited. Caputo is crouched on the sideline, yelling instructions to the “Green” scout team. Konkol stands at midcourt, coaching the “White” team starters. Huger, 42 but still a lethal scorer, often plays guard with the scout team. He has experience from his days playing under Coach L at Bowling Green. Larranaga, wearing a heating pad strapped to his back, whistles, claps a lot and encourages his players.
“Trey, I like how you accelerated past that screen!” “Jules, real good!”
When he has to, Larranaga gets tough. After Kenny Kadji missed a midrange jumper in a scrimmage, Larranaga yelled: “You take difficult shots and you don’t have to. You don’t need to dribble. It doesn’t prove anything. You missed the shot. Keep it simple!”
The scrimmage goes to five points. On this day, the scout team beats the starters 5-1 — an omen of the 71-69 loss to come the next night.
As the practice is wrapping up, Larranaga says someone has to hit a half-court shot before they can leave. The players laugh and begin heaving shots from mid-court. Durand Scott makes it. Practice over.
After practice, the players receive one of Caputo’s famously meticulous full-color, 17-page scouting reports. Players are instructed to study the report before they go to sleep that night. The first two pages are personnel reports.
The scouting report on Duke’s Ryan Kelly before he lit up UM for a career-high 36 points read: “We expect him to play and be excited about it. MUST MATCH HIS INTENSITY! Excellent on offensive boards. Make him a dribbler. Prefers left shoulder in paint.”
The report on Michigan State’s Keith Appling before their game Nov. 28, 2012: “Left to basket, Right for either pull-up or rim. Gambler on D, MUST BE BALL TOUGH. Push in transition. MUST STOP THE BALL NO HEAD OF STEAM!”
The report then includes summaries of the opposing offense and defense.
Breaking it all down
On the Spartans’ defense: “MSU Defense is #8 in the NCAA in Points Per Possession. They are very much a pack defensive team with the exception of Dawson running through passing lanes for dunks. They do a very good job guarding the ball and beating screens. We must be patient and wait for our screens to be set.”
Next is a sheet with team stats, best and worst free-throw shooters, best three-point shooters and best offensive rebounders. There is a list of the team’s top 15 to 20 offensive plays. Then, 10 pages of those plays diagrammed.
“The players don’t have to know all the stats and information, but we do as coaches,” said Caputo, who attended Archbishop Molloy High School in New York, the same school as Larranaga. “My job is to condense it all. I want to give them an edge, a few hints of what to expect.”
The game preparation typically takes two days. Caputo spends 12 hours watching tape of the opponent, and then with the help of the staff videographer Jaime Vathielil, puts together a 20-minute “long edit” for Larranaga and a 12-minute shorter version for the players.
Last Monday, the staff met at 9:30 a.m., watched tape and started to strategize. They could tell from the tape that Georgia Tech’s freshmen were playing better now than the last time they played. At 3 p.m., the players got a three-minute “Sneak Peek” video of Georgia Tech. “We just want them to see the team’s identity. Are they great offensive rebounders? Do they press? Are they a transition team?” Konkol explained.
“The key,” Caputo said, “is making the players feel comfortable and confident. We try to keep the same routine for every game. We set up the chairs the same way, do everything at exactly the same time. The calmer we can make them, the better they will perform when the lights come on.”