University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga gathered the Hurricanes in a huddle during practice at the Verizon Center on Wednesday afternoon and said: “You know why they call it the Sweet 16? Because it’s sweet!’’
He would know.
Seven years ago, in this very building, he led 11th-seeeded mid-major George Mason to a Sweet 16 win over Wichita State and a historic Elite Eight triumph over top-seeded Connecticut to earn a spot in the Final Four — a first for a double-digit seed.
Thursday night, he will try to work his magic again as the No. 2-seeded Hurricanes (29-6) face No. 3 seed Marquette (25-8). It was clear as the coach roamed the hallways of the building that the place was familiar and special to him. George Mason fans stopped him for autographs and photos. And he got big hugs from former Patriot players Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler.
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He said that when he saw those former players, it was as if time hadn’t passed.
“This is not just any other arena for me, this is the Verizon Center,’ Larrañaga said. “I spent many a night watching the Wizards and Georgetown play here, but my greatest memory was getting a chance to coach here in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. [Writer] John Feinstein told me my life would never be the same, and he was right. We’ve had a lot of new things occur all as a direct result of our performance here in the Verizon Center. Those memories last a lifetime.’’
He said he has told stories of that run to his UM players, but they can’t relate “because me and my staff have the memories, and they don’t. They want to create those memories for themselves.’’
UM players said they could tell Larrañaga and his staff were nostalgic here, with good reason.
“We’ve seen the highlights of it, it was a great run, it was magical,’’ UM sophomore guard Shane Larkin said. “Hopefully, he still has some good luck left in him. Not saying we need luck, but hopefully he still has a winning touch, and it’s going to be fun playing out here in this arena. He has experience here, and history here, and hopefully we can keep this as a good memory in his mind and go out and win these two games.’’
They will have to do it without senior center Reggie Johnson, who had arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Johnson injured the knee during the Illinois game Sunday. Larrañaga said he was told of the injury on the plane ride home from Austin on Monday.
“Monday night I was told what the options were, and Reggie had to choose whether to wait or do a minor surgery to try to repair it right away with the hopes that he could heal quickly enough that he could still play this season if our season continued,’’ the coach said. “I don’t look down the road like that. I try to stay in the present and get ready for Marquette.’’
His primary concern is stopping Marquette’s standout guard Vander Blue, and making sure his players hit the glass hard and often, as the Golden Eagles are relentless rebounders, particularly on the offensive end.
Blue scored 29 points Sunday against Butler — 19 in the second half — and scored on a last-second layup to beat Davidson in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The 6-4 guard will likely be the responsibility of UM’s best defender, Durand Scott. Larkin will also have to be aware of the Eagles’ star.
“He likes to get it into his left hand and get all the way to the basket,’’ Larkin said of Blue. “He has a quick first step, can shoot the three ball and plays the passing lanes well on the defensive side. He affects the game in every way and when it’s a late-game situation, the ball is going to be in his hands, like it was against Davidson. I wouldn’t say he reminds me of anyone in the ACC because nobody attacks the rim like he does in the ACC.’’
Marquette coach Buzz Williams was equally effusive about the Canes backcourt.
“They’re as good as any backcourt in the country, bar none,’’ he said. “Statistically, playing time, defensively. Those guys are both pros, probably longtime pros. They have great intangibles, you see it watching them play.’’
The other big battle will be on the boards, which is where the Hurricanes will most miss Johnson’s 6-10 and 300-pound presence.
“They send four or five guys, so your guards have to get in there and rebound,’’ Larrañaga said. “Our guards better be near the basket because that’s where the game’s going to be played. In one of their one of their games, they shot 23 layups, so their emphasis is within five feet of the basket.’’
UM center Julian Gamble hopes to step up to make up for Johnson’s absence.
“It’s going to be important for me to stay out of foul trouble and be relentless on the boards,’’ he said. “I have to hold the interior down like Reggie did, and be more aggressive.’’