Greg Cote

Upset of Duke continues surreal season for Larranaga's yuuge-ly surprising Hurricanes

Miami Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga gives instructions to his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Duke Blue Devils at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.
Miami Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga gives instructions to his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Duke Blue Devils at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

This should not be happening. Not that flood of joy that swarmed the court with merry bedlam after Saturday’s latest uplifting triumph. Not any of this improbable Miami Hurricanes men’s basketball season.

There is no way to be nonchalant about this. It is close to incredible, what Jim Larrañaga has made of this season so far. We must not treat Saturday’s 55-50 home upset of No. 10-ranked Duke as if it was expected. There is no sane way to regard UM reaching 20 victories on Saturday, and 10 in the rugged ACC, like it’s normal.

This is Larrañaga’s best coaching job since he somehow coaxed little George Mason to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four in 2006. Surely he needs to be in the Coach of the Year conversation this year, and I’d have said this even if UM hadn’t won Saturday. Surely, too, his Canes had better now vault into all of the next Top 25 polls for the first time this season. Oh, and, by the way, how has Larrañaga not yet scored a “Dancing With the Stars” invite after all of this postgame hoofing with celebrating players that have become such gone-viral video delights?

No, none of this should be happening. Not this year.

UM lost four of five starters from last year’s 27-win, Sweet 16 team including stalwarts Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, opening this season as a depleted program voted to finish ninth of 15 teams in the preseason ACC media poll. Everyone expected a down year. Maybe it would be around a .500 team, right? Maybe there might be a chance to sneak an NIT invite.

Instead this bracing win over Mike Krzyzewski’s vaunted Blue Devils comes on the heels of a huge win over another ranked team, at Virginia. Before that the Canes toppled Roy Williams and top-10 North Carolina. You don’t think Larrañaga is something special? Miami was 2-17 all-time vs. Duke before Larrañaga arrived in 2011. After Saturday, Miami is 5-3 vs. Duke under the man players call “Coach L.”

Duke shot less that 30 percent in the second half Saturday.

“Jim’s teams always play good defense,” Krzyzewski said.

This season, America’s Dancingest Coach is also doubling as a miracle worker.

“This year we were being the underdog and counted out as a team, with so many young guys,” says Davon Reed, one of two Canes seniors (along with Kamari Murphy) who played their final home game Saturday and won’t ever forget it. “We continue to prove people wrong. Against all odds, we’ve been resilient and continued to push.”

The two seniors were honored Saturday but it was a baby who led the Canes — true freshman Bruce Brown scoring 25 points. He shot 11 for 18. All of his teammates were a combined 11 for 40. Brown, a 6-5 guard, has a chance to have a prolific career that gets the attention of the UM record book.

Brown is proof Larrañaga, even at 67, can recruit, can connect. The Bronx-born coach has a grandfatherly, Bernie Sanders quality to him, but players see the genuineness.

Larrañaga keeps it light. His cellphone chirped during a Friday news conference. “It’s Donald Trump,” he told reporters. “I’m not gonna answer that.”

But the coach is dead-serious when it comes to his craft. He teaches. Players grow up under his guidance. They graduate. They learn. They love the guy.

The season’s 20th victory was a big one — a “yuuge” one, in Larrañaga-ese — because, well, because Duke is Duke. No matter the Devils were not at full strength. For example, star Grayson Allen, still recovering from an ankle injury, did not play and was therefore denied an opportunity to trip anybody.

Larrañaga not only has turned UM men’s hoops into a consistent winner, he has sold the program, turned it into a hot ticket, breaking records for season-ticket sales so that every game is an official sellout now — though few are literally packed like Saturday’s game was.

Larranaga has taken this season of modest expectations and made it special. UM has a chance now, with two games left in the regular season, to be a top-four seed in the ACC Tournament and earn an early bye. And back-to-back wins at Virginia and over Duke have erased all doubts that Miami will be a March Madness team whose first-round opponent probably won’t like the draw much.

Said Larrañaga: “We’re very young. We’ve had some serious growing pains, but they’re finding a way to overcome obstacles.”

Saturday was another shot of confidence for a team coming into its own.

“We can play with anybody in any game,” Reed said.

The claim isn’t ludicrous. But the fact it can be said as we near March of this so-called down year — that is.

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