CORAL GABLES - Early-morning chatter from UM as Canes players left campus en route to Tulsa for their NCAA Tournament game against Michigan State in Tulsa on Friday:
• Jim Larranaga has done brilliant work at UM but this might be his best season, considering UM has no prototypical point guard, only nine scholarship players and only seven or eight who play and lost their three best players from last year’s Sweet 16 team (Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Tonye Jekiri).
To make the NCAA Tournament with this group is remarkable.
Could Larranaga have seen this coming?
“Not after the first couple practices when I saw how far we had to go to really become the kind of team that could compete with the best teams in the country, which is what you have to if you’re going to compete in the ACC,” he said.
“But after the non-conference, things really started to change. Our focus defensively became much better. Our offense, although sporadic and we still turn the ball over a little too much, we started to do some things offensively that I liked. Meaning our young guys started to contribute more at the offensive end, meaning guys like DJ Vaseljevic, Bruce Brown, Ebuka Izundu, Anthony Lawrence. When I saw that coming on, I thought we really had a chance. When we beat Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia and Duke in a 10-day period, I thought that was a really good sign we could be a postseason team.”
• One goal for Larranaga was to become a perennial NCAA Tournament team, or at least a program that made it most years. He’s now done it three times in six years. I asked Larranaga about the importance of making it in a year nobody expected.
“This was a special year for me and the staff and the players,” he said. “Going into the season with six very inexperienced players and only three veterans. You can have six inexperienced players if you have four or five veterans. We really had only nine scholarship guys this year. There were games we only had seven. We had one player suspended for three games [Ja’Quan Newton] and we won those three games. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity and are hitting our stride right now and hopefully we’ll play very well on Friday night.”
• UM would need not only to beat Michigan State but likely pull off a stunning upset of Kansas to make its third Sweet 16 appearance under Larranaga.
“The message I send my players on the team is there are 68 really good teams,” he said. “Some teams you think don’t have a great chance of advancing to the Final Four. But if you come out of the ACC and you’ve competed against North Carolina and Duke and Florida State, you’re ready to compete for a national championship….
“I don’t know if we have a chip on our shoulder as much as we’re enjoying the journey. Practice these last few days has been absolutely terrific. They’re having fun but working really, really hard.”
• Friday’s Larranaga/Tom Izzo coaching matchup is an interesting one.
“I’ve known Tom Izzo for more than 30 years. We compete at Bowling Green and then at George Mason, we played them twice. In our second year here, we played Michigan State. Tom Izzo, very much like the North Carolina system, they run so fast.
“Their point guard, Tum Tum [Nairn Jr.], is about as fast a player as there is in the country. Their 4 and 5 man, Nick Ward and Miles Bridges, are about as good a 4/5 combination as there is in the country. Bridges is a likely lottery pick when he turns pro. Nick Ward is No.1 in the country in offensive rebound percentage and getting fouled. They’re a handful.”
• With Newton having nearly as many turnovers as assists (97-99), does the lack of a prototypical point guard affect how he runs his offense?
“Yes,” Larranaga said. “The answer to that is really as a coach, I evaluate what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then we try to enhance the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. We’ve elevated the responsibility of someone like Bruce Brown to help Ja’Quan with the role so that Ja’Quan doesn’t have to do it for 40 minutes every game. I had no idea who could be the backup point guard when we started practice. We knew Ja’Quan would be given the ball and given the responsibility.
“When Davon Reed was a freshman, we even used him because we were shorthanded at the point but I never want to put Davon at the point this year because he’s such a good 2/3 man, such a good wing player and I didn’t want to take away from his strength because I thought he would need to be our leading scorer.”
• Larranaga said he’s undecided if he will stick with a starting lineup of Newton, Reed, Brown, Anthony Lawrence and Kamari Murphy. That starting unit is 4-4. Izundu started ahead of Lawrence at times this season.
“That’s a debate the coaches are having right now,” Larranaga said. “We’re looking at the matchups, looking at what defense we might start in, looking at who would guard Nick Ward best, looking who would stay out of foul trouble guarding a player like Nick Ward, who draws so many fouls. We looked at different lineups yesterday.”
I also posted some Dolphins nuggets this morning with news on the team’s cornerback search and strongside linebacker situation. Please click here for that.