If you ask University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, there’s nothing like playing at Madison Square Garden.
So although he wants his players focused, Larrañaga doesn’t mind them being excited about the opportunity to play there.
“We want our players to enjoy this,” said Larrañaga, who grew up in New York, and played and coached at the site dubbed The World’s Most Famous Arena. “To take your team to New York and have your players experience it is unlike any other venue you can take them. You’ve got all those newspapers and millions of people walking around the city. It’s very different than any other experience.”
The Hurricanes hope to do more than live the thrills of playing at Madison Square Garden this week when they try to win their first NIT championship. UM (24-12) will play in its first NIT semifinal Tuesday when it takes on Temple (26-10) at 7 p.m.
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Although Larrañaga, a Bronx native, said the Hurricanes are treating it as a business trip, returning to New York brings back fond memories for the longtime coach, who won an NIT title as an assistant at Virginia in 1980 and once played against the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in college.
“When I was nine or 10 years old, my brother, Bob, played for St. John’s [University] for the legendary coach Joe Lapchick and one of my first memories of going to his games was at Madison Square Garden,” Larrañaga said. “I said to myself, ‘One day, I’d like to play ball here.’ ”
Larrañaga played there during his career at Providence and later coached as an assistant.
But Tuesday night will be his first chance to roam the sidelines as a head coach at Madison Square Garden.
The trip is also giving Larrañaga a chance to reconnect with his roots.
“This trip is going to cost me a lot of money because a lot of people keep calling me for tickets,” Larrañaga joked recently, saying a number of former high school and elementary school teammates had been calling him for tickets.
Larrañaga said a number of friends from his days playing on playground courts in the Parkchester neighborhood in the Bronx have also reached out to him. He said Monday he couldn’t wait to have his two favorite New York-style meals.
“The two places I go to are to get a hot dog and a pizza off the street from the vendors,” Larrañaga said. “That’s the best.”
Three of Larrañaga’s players have experience playing at Madison Square Garden as well.
Guard Angel Rodriguez played there while playing for Kansas State University and guard Sheldon McClellan also played there during his time at Texas. Guard Davon Reed, a New Jersey native, played AAU basketball there as well.
It’s questionable if Rodriguez will be available to play, however, as he continues to be hampered by a nagging wrist injury. Rodriguez has missed the past two NIT games. Manu Lecomte (knee) and Ja’Quan Newton (thumb) were also banged up after Miami’s comeback win against Richmond, according to Larrañaga.
UM will need all the help it can get against a very good Temple backcourt led by senior guards Will Cummings and Jesse Morgan.
Cummings (6-2, 185 pounds) is averaging 22 points so far in the NIT and is shooting 55 percent. He is averaging 14.9 points per game for the season.
Morgan (6-5, 190) has hit three or more three-pointers in 15 of 26 games this season and is averaging 12.1 points per game.
What concerns Larrañaga the most about Temple, which was one of the top teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, is its ability to protect and distribute the ball well and defend. The Owls led the American Conference in assist-turnover ratio (1.3) and turnover margin (plus-2.72) this season.
“Their guards are terrific,” Larrañaga said. “All three average double figures, and they can all handle it. All these games you watch teams make mistakes, and you have to overcome them. Temple doesn’t turn the ball over. They average less than 10 turnovers a game. They play a simple brand of basketball, and they are always in the game.”
Tuesday: UM men vs. Temple
What: NIT semifinals.
When/where: 7 p.m.; Madison Square Garden, New York.
TV/radio: ESPN; WQAM 560, WINZ 940, WVUM 90.5 FM.
Seeds/records: No. 2 Miami 24-12; No. 1 Temple 26-10.
Noteworthy: The Hurricanes will make their NIT final four debut following a comeback from an 18-point deficit at Richmond in last week’s quarterfinal round. … Temple leads the all-time series 2-1 and is making its fifth appearance in the NIT semifinals. The Owls won the first NIT championship in 1938 and again in 1969, but have not advanced to the semifinals since 2002.