Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga moves around the arena at a slow pace. He follows a simple routine of cereal in the morning. This diet is supplemented by trips to Smoothie King when he needs to fill up with a treat.
For the second time in a row, the relatable 73-year-old man took his team to an Elite Eight matchup after a victory in the Sweet 16 against the No. 1 seed Houston Cougars. After downing the Texas Longhorns 87-81 in comeback fashion, Miami advanced to its first-ever Final Four.
“We went on a run offensively, defensively, and that completely turned the game around. When it got to be 75-75, we’ve been in so many close games this year, I felt very comfortable and confident these guys will pull us through,” Larrañaga said after beating Texas.
For such an occasion, the locker-room dancing, joyous older man could only smile as he threw on his shirt, which read “Champs,” with “The Final Chapter” lettered in bold underneath.
“I love these guys. They’re all terrific. Their personalities are just sensational,” Larrañaga said.
Miami was eventually eliminated by a dominant buzzsaw. The UConn Huskies earned the title of the best team in college basketball in 2023. Their 72-59, Final Four victory against the ‘Canes was their slimmest margin of victory throughout their six-game journey in the NCAA Tournament.
“Only one team wins it,” Larrañaga told reporters outside the Watsco Center after the loss to Connecticut. “To accomplish what we did, getting to the Final Four for the first time in [the] school’s history is something to be very proud of. I told our players, I’ve told our fans, ‘This is a lifelong memory, you will never forget this.”
Unlike the 73-year-old Larrañaga, the Hurricanes basketball team he coached all season long played at a blazing pace, able to run by opponents with relative ease. In 37 games, Miami faced a variety of challenges from around the country, from conference foe Duke to the best two teams in “The Lone Star State”: Texas and Houston.
Miami handled almost every challenge in its path. The Hurricanes won a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season title, avoided an upset against Drake, then trounced two consecutive higher-seeded teams in Indiana and Houston. Then, they still had time for a comeback victory against another favored opponent to advance to their first Final Four in school history.
In each circumstance, Larrañaga adjusted to his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses with the weapons on the roster, leaving the opposition with little to counter with.
“We played a lot of seven-footers this year. None of them bothered us,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said of Miami’s Norchad Omier. “They were never a factor with us. This kid was because of how good he is.”
Even as some of Miami’s players simmered down, others on the roster found a way. Without Omier for parts of the game against Texas, Larrañaga leaned on senior Jordan Miller to come through with 27 points, while the coach elected to sit his frontcourt player on the bench for much of the first half to avoid any worse foul trouble.
“My coaches are saying don’t take him out because he only has one foul,” Larrañaga said. “He’s a very aggressive player.”
Making the chess move early, Larrañaga was able to save Omier’s abilities for the final minutes of the game, where the Nicaraguan was able to finish the game without fouling out.
The long tenured coach has been the only constant during years of building Miami basketball. The Hurricanes were unable to reach the NCAA Tournament in six of Larrañaga’s 12 seasons with the team. Even when the Hurricanes did make it, they failed to ever advance past the Sweet 16 until last year. It has hardly been a linear path, and Miami has grown exponentially in the last two seasons, as Larrañaga has stuck around for it all.
“When people are watching us on TV, the next thing they do, oh, I don’t know much about the University of Miami,” Larrañaga said. “Let me go check that out on their website. Then all of a sudden, we get more applications to our university.”
Miami ultimately couldn’t rise to the challenge of winning its coveted first national title in school history. If this season is any indication, however, that title may not be far away.
Larrañaga last led his team to the Final Four in 2006. The George Mason Patriots made it to the last region of the tournament before bowing out to the eventual champion Florida Gators. The Patriots were the No. 11 seed in the tournament.
“It’s the same exhilaration. Just, the jubilant attitude, the effort because you just love it when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said after beating Texas. “What we said in the first day of practice ‘we got to start visualizing what we want to accomplish right now and be working towards that every single day, and that is what these guys have done.”
At this point, however, the Hurricanes hardly feel like a Cinderella story, as did the Patriots many years ago. Miami is a more rounded and explosive team than George Mason was. It reached the Elite Eight two years in a row and showed a clear ability to replace the key pieces that left.
“We can say, ‘we were in the Final Four now we’re trying to win a national championship.’ I think every high school player who followed March Madness, every college basketball player who’s thinking about entering his name into the transfer portal. I’m absolutely certain Miami will come up in their conversations,” Larrañaga said.
With prior success and new weapons to take advantage of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), it won’t be as difficult for Miami to consistently bring in better players that will help it stay atop the ACC.
“The guys make my job so enjoyable,” Larrañaga said. “Why would I retire and do nothing as compared to have so much fun being around 18 to 23-year-olds who play basketball, a sport that I love.”