Jim Larrañaga is a storyteller.
He used to invent yarns about Hercules and Mercury at bedtime for his sons. Now he likes to inspire his basketball team with stories that carry a message or moral.
Maybe someday the University of Miami coach will be telling tales about the 2016 Sweet 16 and UM’s game against Villanova on Thursday in Louisville.
It won’t be a David vs. Goliath story, and it’s not really a Little Engine That Could story, either. UM is, after all, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Villanova is a No. 2. So both are where they are supposed to be at this juncture.
But UM’s players are still feeding off the perception that they are underestimated, underrated, underappreciated and under the radar.
“We’re picked to lose again,” Kamari Murphy said, referring to the odds that also favored No. 11 seed Wichita State in UM’s second-round game. “That’s another chip we have on our shoulder.”
Larrañaga’s job is to make sure his players use those chips to their advantage. Perhaps he will retell the story about two men chopping down trees, how one just kept chopping and chopping until he fell into a state of exhaustion while the other took breaks to sharpen his ax and drink water and was much more efficient in completing the task.
“So, coach tells us, ‘Be smart,’ ” Davon Reed said. “He says take care of the little things — the mini games like the war on the boards and the fouls — and the score will take care of itself.”
Larrañaga used to be a yeller and a sideline stomper.
“I was a wild man when I was 35-45 years old,” he said. “I coached every dribble.”
He recalled how he once jumped into a charging drill and told the player attacking him not to go easy on him or stop.
“Then he drove into me like he was a locomotive,” Larrañaga said. “I slid about 10 feet back on the floor and jumped up and said, ‘Now that’s how you take a charge.’ The trainer pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ ”
Larrañaga, 66, is less intense these days. He forbids cursing in practice. He’d rather use a metaphor to get his point across, like the time he and his players released butterflies as a bonding exercise.
“He is a player’s coach,” Reed said. “Even though the age gap is so dramatic we love him and love to play for him.”
UM is in the Sweet 16 for the third time and Larrañaga hopes to take the program to its first Elite Eight. The winner draws the winner of No. 1 Kansas and No. 5 Maryland.
Larrañaga called UM “almost like the mirror image” of Villanova, a team that relies on ball screens, man-to-man defense and versatile guards.
Senior guard Rayn Arcidiacono — who has played a school-record 140 games for Villanova — will be a tough defensive assignment because he is an extension of coach Jay Wright on the court.
“I really don’t talk to him that much,” Wright said. “It’s amazing — he is me. Everything he thinks about is what I think about.”
Freshman sharpshooter Jalen Brunson is the two guard and leading scorer Josh Hart is like a combo guard but Wright doesn’t classify them as such.
“We look at our guards as guards,” Wright said. “We really don’t have a point guard. We don’t have a two guard. We don’t have a three guard. We want all of our guards to do the same thing.”
The Wildcats’ perimeter proficiency has enabled them to average 82 points per game over the past month. They shot 58.6 percent in beating Iowa by 19 points.
Larrañaga sees a golden opportunity for 7-0 center Tonye Jekiri against Daniel Ochefu.
“It’s possible for Tonye to have a big offensive game because of the way we match up against Villanova,” he said.
Jekiri came to Miami from his home country of Nigeria, where he played soccer. Nobody had ever heard of him until Larrañaga developed him into an NBA prospect.
He’s another source of inspirational material for Larrañaga, who also draws heavily on the narrative from 2006, when he led No. 11 seed George Mason to the Final Four. If he can be a winning coach in Louisville, he’ll be author of a whole new set of stories.