January 13, 2014 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

Hurricane watch

by Kevin Hoffman, Editorial Director

Miami was the only team to beat Duke last season and miss the NCAA Tournament, a fact that still haunts coach Jim Larrañaga. His Hurricanes manhandled college basketball’s best team on its home floor, finishing with a winning record in arguably the league’s toughest conference.

Larrañaga believes they deserved better.

“I thought that was not only a slight at our program but also the ACC, he said. A team that finishes sixth place in the ACC should almost automatically be included. It was very disappointing.”

Don’t bet on history repeating itself. Miami returns nearly its entire roster, and early projections have the Hurricanes cracking the top 25 to start the year. The 2014-15 season wasn’t a complete wash, as Miami made the NIT championship where it lost in overtime to Stanford. Larrañaga thinks the postseason experience could be beneficial to a team hoping to play for something a bit bigger in March.

Surviving the offseason comes first, and Larrañaga admits this one has been especially unusual. Advancing through the NIT delayed the start of Miami’s offseason skill development program, which could have been much more detrimental to the team’s progression had there not been nine returning players. Larrañaga also lost two assistants, who accepted head coaching jobs at other schools.

Staff changes create difficulties, but Larrañaga wouldn’t have it any other way. He understands assistants have greater aspirations.

“I tell my players and coaches all the time, my goal is to help them achieve their goals, Larrañaga said. And their goals should be to help me and our program achieve its goals.”

Larrañaga is entering his fifth year with the Hurricanes, the most memorable being his run to the Sweet 16 during the 2012-13 season when he was named AP College Basketball Coach of the Year. He’s led teams to the NCAA Tournament on six occasions, including a Final Four appearance in 2006 with George Mason.

Larrañaga firmly believes last season should have been his seventh trip to the tournament, and he has a strong argument. College basketball fans were up in arms about UCLA’s inclusion, meanwhile teams like Temple, Colorado State and Miami were left out.

Miami’s win over Duke was the hallmark of its résumé. Larrañaga said to even have a chance at beating the Blue Devils on their home floor, his players first had to believe that it was possible — and they did.

Duke is known for pressuring teams in man-to-man defense, and Larrañaga wanted his team to attack that pressure. Miami entered the half down one but scored 56 points in the second half to beat Duke by 16 and hand the Blue Devils their first loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 41 games.

“I told our players the first team to 80 will win, and we scored 90, Larrañaga said. We felt like our style of play could be instrumental in giving us to chance to win. You can’t be put back on your heels and play defensive. You’ve got to be very aggressive.”

Larrañaga values the small things in basketball — hard work, enthusiasm, effort — and that’s part of what has made him so successful. There hasn’t been a particular style of play he’s favored over the years, instead opting to mold his strategy to the talent on his roster. Since coming to Miami, he hasn’t been blessed with an abundance of elite low post players, so he made adjustments that give guards more freedom to use ball screens. He said Miami has been among the nation’s top five teams in scoring off of ball screens in all four years he has been there.

He’s also a stickler for ball security. The Hurricanes posted the 13th fewest turnovers per game (10.1) in Division I during the 2014-15 season, and that’s no accident.

When coaches ask Larrañaga how he reduces turnovers, he responds with the Turnover Ball Elimination (TOBE) Drill. Practices start with a rack of balls, anywhere from 12 to 16 total, and anytime a turnover is committed during scrimmages or live action, that ball is removed from the rotation. If he reaches a point where there are no balls left, the rest of practice is spent conditioning.

It has a psychological impact on the team. As the balls dwindle from the rack, players notice and begin to value each possession, stepping to meet passes and taking fewer risks.

“We tell them on offense the worst thing you can do is turn the ball over, so it’s always going to be a high priority, Larrañaga said. On defense, the worst thing you can do is foul, so those are two areas emphasized every day in practice.

“We’ve only had a few practices that actually reach no balls left on the rack and they had to run. They didn’t like the way practice ended that day, and normally they make a determination to not let that happen again.”

Larrañaga has developed his own philosophy over the years, but Jack Curran contributed to it. Curran, the legendary Archbishop Molloy High School (Queens, New York) hall of fame coach, led the varsity team when Larrañaga was a student there in the mid-1960s. Larrañaga said one thing he inherited from Curran is his disdain for vulgarities — Curran wouldn’t use them with his players, and neither will he.

In a way, Archbishop Molloy is where Larrañaga was given his first coaching job. He was a member of the school’s freshman team, undefeated heading into the Christmas break. When players came back to school, they learned their coach would not be returning. They were given a “team monitor, but he admitted he knew nothing about basketball.

Curran pulled Larrañaga and another player aside and told them they needed to coach the team. They took the reins, leading the squad to an undefeated season and the New York City freshmen championship.

The school’s junior varsity coach Brother Kevin Handibode said even then he felt that Larrañaga had the talent to become a successful coach. He was a good student, an effective leader and great basketball player.

Handibode, who is now president and freshman basketball coach at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, makes it to Hurricanes games every now and then to support his former player. He isn’t surprised by how far Larrañaga has come.

“He was a great player, and when you needed a basket you knew who to get the ball to, Handibode said, reflecting on his days at Archbishop Molloy. He was the best as far as I was concerned. He was a very good person that got along with everybody and the other kids on the team looked up to him.”

Handibode and other Miami fans are hopeful 2015-16 could be the Hurricanes’ best season since their Sweet 16 appearance. The pieces seem to be in place, and Larrañaga feels running the ACC gauntlet during the regular season adequately prepares his players for the NCAA Tournament.

Miami also has an edge when it comes to the shot clock, which has been shortened from 35 to 30 seconds. The NCAA experimented with the 30-second clock in the NIT last season, so Larrañaga and the Hurricanes know what to expect. He believes it will have a “dramatic impact, creating a new tempo that results in a lot of bad shots.

This Miami team is more experienced than it was a year ago, but Larrañaga knows it still has to prove it on the court. This time, he doesn’t want to leave any shred of doubt in the mind of the selection committee.

“When we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament it meant to me that the ACC did not get the respect it deserves, and I’m hoping that won’t be a problem this year, he said. There could easily be eight to 10 ACC teams good enough to play not only in the tournament but make the Final Four. I feel like we’re one of those teams.”

See the print edition of Winning Hoops to learn one of Larrañaga’s best drills and his key to hiring assistant coaches.