Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Jim Larrañaga’s vision coming true as Canes defeat Duke

UM coach Jim Larrañaga reacts in the first half of the Miami Hurricanes' game against the Duke Blue Devils at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga reacts in the first half of the Miami Hurricanes' game against the Duke Blue Devils at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

This is what Jim Larrañaga’s imagination looked like and sounded like five years ago. Like an 80-69 victory over rival Duke, in a sold-out campus arena, with University of Miami fans making noise so joyous and sonic that it nearly drowned out the song that blasted over the PA system as Monday night’s game ended.

Rock you like a Hurricane, indeed.

The mind casts back to when Pat Riley came to the Heat in 1995, a knight in Armani, not armor, and made a franchise matter. He spoke that first day about envisioning a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.

He has seen three of them. So far.

Larrañaga came to the Miami Hurricanes in 2011, as much a gift and savior. He didn’t speak that first day of a national championship but of something just as important to the program and even more fundamentally necessary. He spoke of creating interest, of making people care about UM basketball.

The first thing he did as Canes coach was wander the campus and its dormitories, introducing himself to random students and pitching UM hoops at a grass-roots level. He wife used to discreetly give away free tickets to upcoming games.

“We’re going to make it so everyone is going to be dying to get a ticket and a seat to watch us play,” said Larrañaga that first day. “You may say, ‘That ain’t happening here.’ But I love a challenge.”

Well, it’s happening.

Larrañaga’s dream has come true just as Riley’s did.

Canes men’s basketball has become a tough ticket. On Monday night, a sellout crowd of nearly 8,000 jammed the team’s cozy campus arena to watch No. 15-ranked Miami dominate 24th-ranked Duke.

“I think we have a good team,” Larrañaga said afterward. “I don’t think tonight was some big upset.”

Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went further.

“That was the most physical game we’ve been involved in this season, by far,” he said. “They’re better than we are. They’re one of the best teams. Jim is one of the best coaches in the country, and they’re terrific.”

This is an injury-depleted Duke team, granted. Krzyzewski kidded about signing three guys on NBA-style 10-day contracts and holding tryouts for the student body.

But he made no excuse and left no doubt; his Blue Devils got whipped. Miami was better all over the floor.

Tonye Jekiri’s defense on Duke star Marshall Plumlee was massive. Sheldon McClellan poured in 21 points. Angel Rodriguez had 13 points and 11 assists. In all UM had 24 assists vs. only seven turnovers.

Gone are the days when the Canes beating Duke was a rarity. Miami is now 4-2 vs. the Blue Devils under Larrañaga.

Some in the Miami media were still pushing the David & Goliath angle after this game, and Coach K wasn’t buying it.

“I don’t know if you feel like neglected children here or what,” he gently chided. “You got a damned good team.”

That old mind-set is part of what drives these Hurricanes.

“We’re taking pride in making people respect us,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people still don’t give us enough credit.”

As for the fan base growing commensurately?

This is the first season in any UM sport ever in which the maximum season tickets have been sold and every game is sold out — a far crying from 2011 when Larrañaga was, in effect, going door to door to sell his program.

Of course, not every game sees every seat actually filled. This one did, and it mattered.

“A lot of credit to the crowd,” Rodriguez said.

UM’s men have made the NCAA Tournament eight times in program history, advancing as far as the Sweet 16 only twice, in 2000 under Leonard Hamilton and 2013 under Larrañaga.

Now, that is expected. This is the new standard that Larrañaga has created.

Still, don’t be jaded about what Monday night meant or take for granted that sound as the game ended.

This was still Duke, depleted or not. This was Coach K. Those were ESPN’s cameras in the house, and that was iconic Dick Vitale calling the game.

This was an occasion.

And the Hurricanes rose to it and owned it.

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