When Jim Larranaga arrived at Miami in 2011, his players had no idea what to expect. He was a 61-year-old, seemingly reserved coach who appeared to be the opposite of former coach Frank Haith. Senior center Reggie Johnson admits he wasn't sure whether this was going to work out.
"I didn't know what getting Coach L was going to be like for us," Johnson said. "He was at George Mason and I didn't know if he could handle a big-time job. But he definitely proved everyone wrong. He came in and he wanted to basically fit in yet get everyone on the same page with him. He definitely wanted to win, we wanted to win.
"But he knew you can't come in and be hard and guys don't like you. He didn't come in like that, and guys automatically respected him because he lets us know it's about winning. "
Two years later, it's still about winning. Like never before. Miami (29-6) is one victory away from advancing further in the NCAA Tournament than ever.
Tonight, the No. 2-seeded Hurricanes will play No. 3-seeded Marquette in the East Region semifinals in Washington. It is Miami's first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008.
And nobody is less surprised than Larranaga.
"Last spring when we met with the team, we asked the guys what kind of season they hoped for and would they be willing to really sacrifice and work toward that?" Larranaga said. "But we saw the ingredients that we had and we felt like if everybody made the necessary sacrifices, that we could have a great season. And all the guys did. … And as I could see things unfolding coming into the practice season in the fall, I could see this team could be very, very special."
The Hurricanes won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. The players said the success can be traced to Larranaga and his staunch belief that Miami could be better than it was.
"I think at the beginning it was a culture change," senior forward/center Julian Gamble said. "That's something that he wanted to focus on, just changing the culture and what people thought about Miami basketball. So really it was just getting back to the fundamentals of the game and throughout the game having that toughness about us, toughness that teams really remember us for. And because we have so many veterans, it's a lot easier for us to buy into what he's saying, because we just want to win."
"He knew that we had a pretty good team and we could do some great things," senior forward Kenny Kadji added. "He came in and gave us a plan, told us what to do to execute it. And that's what we did."
That plan began on Day 1 in a team meeting in which Larranaga told the players about a book he'd read many years ago — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He told them being successful would require them to develop the right habits and to sacrifice and that before you can truly be successful, you have to dream it, visualize it, then go prepare properly.
"They embraced that philosophy and that attitude, and we have been two years in the making," he said.
Tonight Larranaga's Hurricanes will play about 30 minutes from his old school in the Verizon Center, where he led George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, losing to Florida. He knows how quickly it all plays out — these three weeks of the NCAA Tournament — and the mass media attention that goes with it. It's why he has asked, make that demanded, that his players fully embrace the moment. And he has promised to do the same.
"I want the players to enjoy this, especially our seniors," Larranaga said. "This is the one and only time that they will get to experience this. If you start talking about how much pressure someone is feeling, they start to dwell on that. If you talk about how much fun you want to have, the players focus on that. … Kind of make dreams come true."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]