WASHINGTON — It’s been seven years, but the memories are still fresh for Jim Larranaga. Back then, in 2006, people knew as much about his George Mason team as they knew about Florida Gulf Coast University two weeks ago.
The small school in Northern Virginia wasn’t supposed to beat Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament opener or North Carolina after that, but once they did, they set themselves up to play the Sweet 16 right in their backyard at the Verizon Center.
They beat Wichita State, then shocked a Connecticut team — loaded with four players who would be taken in the first round in that year’s NBA draft — shattering all brackets and crashing the Final Four, redefining what it meant to be a Cinderella story (the search for the tournament dark horse is now the search for the next George Mason) and doing it in front of essentially a home crowd.
So when he arrived on Wednesday with a Miami team that has been surprisingly special all season, Larranaga was returning to the scene of the moment that has come to define his coaching career.
“This is not just any arena, this is the Verizon Center,” Larranaga said. “We have had a lot of new things occur and all as direct result of our performances here in the Verizon Center. Those memories last a lifetime.”
With the Hurricanes, Larranaga has the potential to recreate that magic. Miami put together the best season in the program’s history by rattling off 13 straight wins in the Atlantic Coast Conference, at one point soaring to No. 2 in the nation. With two wins this weekend, starting Thursday with Marquette, could make its first trip to the Final Four.
Players, including point guard and ACC player of the year Shane Larkin, who was recruited by Larranaga while he was still at George Mason, know the story and want to write a sequel.
“We have seen the highlights of it,” Larkin said. “It was a great run. It was magical. Hopefully, he still has some left in him. Not saying that we need luck, but hopefully he still has a winning touch and it’s going to be fun playing out here in this arena.”
Forward Kenny Kadji said, “We actually talked about it as a team and we don’t want Coach L’s last memory in this building to be losing. We don’t want him to have a bad memory here. He has a pretty good legacy in this building and we want it to continue.”
Buzz wears off
Buzz Williams, Marquette’s fiery coach, is fully aware of his perception as “emotionally high strung,” he said. But he’s also noticed the comparisons between himself and the coaches he’s faced on the Golden Eagles’ path to the Sweet 16, from Butler’s boy-genius Brad Stevens last weekend to Thursday’s matchup with Larranaga.
“I’m not concerned about my reputation as much as I am my character,” Williams said. “If you only see me on game day, probably what you think of me is — I don’t want to say diametrically opposed — but it’s distinctly different. But to try to be somebody I’m not, I can’t do that.”
He hinted that he was closer to Larranaga’s personality type than people think.
“I have a great respect for coach Jim Larranaga,” Williams said. “I think he’s pure in how he goes about things. I think he’s a guy that someone at this point in my career I can look up to because he does it for the right reasons. I don’t think he’s in our industry for selfish motivation or for ego.”
Smart stays at VCU
Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart isn’t going anywhere for a while, agreeing in principle to an extend a contract that already runs through 2020. The details are being finalized, but the majority of changes involve ‘‘program enhancements for the student-athletes and coaches,’’ athletic director Ed McLaughlin said. With openings at places such as UCLA, Southern Cal, and Minnesota already this offseason, VCU wanted to be proactive in the face of certain interest from elsewhere, McLaughlin said. Smart is 111-37 in four years, the second-most for a coach in his first four seasons . . . Chris Collins, who spent the past 13 years on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke, got his first head coaching job, taking over for the fired Bill Carmody at Northwestern . . . Memphis coach Josh Pastner agreed to a contract extension, athletic director Tom Bowen simply saying that Pastner ‘‘will remain our basketball coach for a long time.’’
Pierre Jackson had 20 points and 13 assists in his final home game as Baylor beat Providence, 79-68, in an NIT quarterfinal game. Cory Jefferson added 26 points for the Bears (21-14), who go to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, where they will play BYU (24-11) next Tuesday. Providence (19-15) had three 20-point scorers: Bryce Cotton (23), Vincent Council (21), and Kadeem Batts (20) . . . Roy Devyn Marble scored 24 points as Iowa (24-12) won an NIT quarterfinal over Virginia (23-12), 75-64, and end the Cavaliers’ 19-game home winning streak . . . North Carolina State junior point guard Lorenzo Brown and Oklahoma junior forward Amath M'Baye will enter the NBA draft.