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At tip-off, Jim Larranaga is on his feet, watching the first ugly minutes unroll from the sideline.
It's a Wednesday night in Tallahassee, the stage for a Rivalry Week hoops battle between Florida State and the University of Miami. Turnout is good. Red-faced frat boys war-whoop as ESPN2 cameras pan the crowd. Older alumni quietly sit courtside in Seminole gear, eyes hooked on cheerleaders shaking golden pom-poms. A 2011-12 Atlantic Coast Conference championship banner dangles from the rafters, although few people probably expect this year's Seminole squad to do much against the visiting competition.
FSU is anchored by underclassmen — thin, reedy guys with little experience — except for senior standout Michael Snaer, a long-range danger with sure NBA potential. The Hurricanes, by contrast, start four veteran seniors tonight. At point for UM is Shane Larkin. With pro-athlete genes from his dad, baseball Hall of Famer Barry, the sophomore is an all-around talent, equally adept at pulling off highlight-reel showbiz as playbook maneuvers. That combination of finesse and experience works for UM — the team is currently 20-3 for the season. When the Canes first met FSU a month earlier, Miami came out on top 71-47.
But as play begins, it becomes clear UM is rusty. The first stabs at FSU's basket all backfire, with three turnovers in six possessions. Two minutes in, the Hurricanes are down 7-2. They look nothing like the team that dismantled the University of North Carolina 87-61 five days earlier and is currently in the middle of a perfect ACC campaign.
Larranaga stays planted near the end of the bench. At age 63, the coach still carries his six-foot-five frame with the straight-backed poise of a former athlete. Not a clipboard-basher, he quietly takes in the action, his competitive fire fenced off behind professorial calm. Neatly trimmed hair still holds onto some color, and scant wisps of white reach over the top of his head. Worry lines worm across his forehead as he watches, his arms either folded across his dark suit or clasped behind his back.
Suddenly, Snaer knifes through the defense on the run and receives the ball at the top of the key. Before Larkin can get his hands up, Snaer sails the ball over the UM point guard's head to an open man below the basket. FSU is up 9-2.
On the next possession, FSU's defense chokes off approaches to the basket. After swinging along the perimeter, the ball lands with Kenny Kadji, an easy-smiling forward with a gym-cut six-foot-11 frame. He plants his feet, dips his knees low, and arcs the ball to the basket. It thunks against the backboard before flying up and out of bounds.
"Miami knows how this feels, because they just did it to North Carolina, this kind of start," ESPN's Dave O'Brien chortles on air as a timeout freezes play with FSU leading by nine.
Initially unranked, UM crashed the party of college contenders after upsetting Duke, 90-63, in late January. It was the first time the team had beaten a number-one-ranked team, and it put the Hurricanes in the Associated Press's Top 25 list for the first time since 2010. Each subsequent win nudged the Hurricanes higher. Before the February 13 tip-off, they had reached number three — a program record.
The wins shifted attention onto Larranaga, now in his second year at UM. Although his name isn't marbled in the college pantheon, over a three-decade career, he's put together a unique reputation. Equal parts playground grit and New Agey corporate-speak, his coaching style turned a no-name program into a contender in 2006, when he led 11th-seed George Mason to the Final Four. It was one of the great Cinderella runs in the NCAA annals.
Now, easing into his career’s last act, Larranaga may or may not have the tools to take the Hurricanes deep into the postseason. Last Saturday, the Hurricanes lost a hyped rematch with Duke, showing that the ACC championship won’t be an easy grab. And in future years, Larranaga’s team will face not only a 128-team bracket but fallout from the worst scandal outside of Joe Paterno’s Penn State. Although Larranaga was never on campus while corrupt booster Nevin Shapiro was cutting checks, he may have to deal with sanctions for the rest of his Miami career.
To understand what this means for South Florida's newly minted, second-most-loved franchise, you have to look deep into not only Larranaga's past but his present. The coach's quirky approach has been able to push teams far beyond the usual expectations, but Miami presents its own obstacles.
Larranaga was born in the Bronx in 1949. His family lived in Parkchester, a massive square of 171 matching red-brick buildings planted in the south-central part of the borough. His Cuban-American father, John, was an insurance adjuster who worked in the Empire State Building. His Irish mother, Eileen, raised six kids in the family's three-bedroom apartment.
The postwar baby boom filled Parkchester with children, and basketball was the main event on the playground. Younger kids grew up watching from behind the chainlink, waiting for their chance. "If you were mediocre, you'd be sitting," recalls John Carey, a Parkchester native who grew up with Larranaga. "When you got out there, you'd try to absorb everything. It would teach you the subtleties of the game."