Jim Larranaga no stranger to success in the Verizon Center
Last week Miami's Jim Larranaga and Marquette's Buzz Williams flashed their coaching prowess - and curious dance moves - during the opening week of the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, it seems appropriate the formidable strategists and their hopping-good teams meet for the right to advance in the Big Dance.
Back at the Verizon Center, the arena where his personal and coaching life changed forever, Larranaga could not slow the stirring of his memory banks upon arrival back in the building for Wednesday's media session. Of course the charming New Yorker who famously directed George Mason to the 2007 Final Four as the No. 11 seed had no issue looking back. After all, the Patriots' Cinderella's run included round of 16 and 8 victories inside the same Chinatown venue.
Six seasons later, "Coach L" is back for more with the ACC regular season and tournament champion Hurricanes (29-6), the East Region's No. 2 seed. Miami and No. 3 Marquette tip at 7:15 Thursday night. Top seed Indiana faces No. 4 Syracuse in the nightcap.
"Coming into this building to them it's just another venue," Larranaga said of his players, who seek their own Final Four run. "To me and my staff it's not because we have the memory. They don't. They want to create those memories for themselves and for this team."
Larranaga has quickly created positive memories in only two seasons at Miami, a historically irrelevant basketball program with nary a regional final appearance. Not considered a favorite entering the ACC campaign, the coach - with considerable help from sophomore point guard Shane Larkin - directed the Hurricanes to Miami's first regular season title.
The school's first ever ACC Tournament championship followed as did their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2000, as did Larranaga's dance number.
In the locker room following Saturday's 63-59 win over Illinois, the 64-year-old coach became an Internet sensation with his rendition of the Muhammad Ali shuffle. Though the footwork was impromptu, there was a method to the dancing madness.
"They weren't fighting hard enough for loose balls and rebounds we need to pick up our mentality and fight to the bitter end," Larranaga said. "When they did, I was walking into the locker room I thought, 'well the team is fighting, the theme was fighting, what do I say?'
"I don't know if my players know who [Ali] is, but I said to them, I asked you guys to fight and what I saw out there was Muhammad Ali and I broke into the Ali shuffle, I have no idea why I did that."
Miami suffered a blow before leaving for Washington as Reggie Johnson, the team's best rebounder according to the coach, stayed in South Florida after suffering a lower extremity injury against Illinois in the round of 32.
"We're going to need other guys to step up and do a great job especially on the defensive back boards because Marquette is such a powerful, offensively rebounding team," Larranaga said.
The Golden Eagles (25-8) are indeed a relentless bunch, taking on the personality of their high-energy coach -- and the only one of the four remaining in the East region without a Final Four appearance on his resume. That could change if junior Vander Blue keeps up the late game heroics and high scoring. The wing guard's game-winning layup capped a rally against No. 14 Davidson and Blue scored 29 in a 74-72 victory over Butler.
Known for strolling far away from the sidelines and onto the court during games, Williams also has a proclivity for shimmying on the hardwood after wins. The fire hydrant shaped, fifth-year coach did exactly that after Marquette outlasted Butler in Saturday's round of 32 matchup held at the University of Kentucky.
Williams had reason to celebrate - and exhale after the Golden Eagles won their first two games by a combined three points, and because arriving in Lexington his wife required an emergency appendectomy procedure.
"Her appendix was about to burst...I've been in the delivery room and my wife delivered all four children of ours naturally, and I've never seen her in that sort of pain with her appendix," said Williams, describing the scene that took place the same night Kentucky lost its N.I.T. game at Robert Morris.
"They were giving her morphine in the lobby before she had been checked in, and the ambiance of the hospital wasn't great," Williams continued. "I think Robert Morris was up 8 when we checked in."
Unlike Kentucky, Williams, his wife and his team were fortunate last week. Six years ago with a mixture of coaching smarts, experienced talent and a dash of destiny, Larranaga took a team into the Verizon Center and onto a Final Four.
"Hopefully he still has some [luck] left in him," said Larkin, selected ACC Player of the Year by the conference's coaches. "Not saying that we need luck but hopefully he still has a winning touch."