- Jason King
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When Jim Larranaga arrived at Miami nearly two years ago, he didn't spend much time giving rah-rah speeches or playing get-to-know-you games with his new players.
"He walked in and introduced himself one afternoon," forward Julian Gamble said, "and the very next day we were on the practice court."
It was a fitting start for Larranaga's tenure in Coral Gables, where things are progressing at warp speed.
With Larranaga leading the way, a Miami program that has appeared in the NCAA tournament just once over the past decade is 22-3 overall and 13-0 in the ACC.
Barring a monumental collapse, the second-ranked Hurricanes will win their second conference title in school history. The only other championship came under Leonard Hamilton in 1999-2000.
"Coach L has achieved this kind of success before," Gamble said, "so we buy into everything he tells us. Everything he says ends up coming true."
Larranaga is most widely known for leading George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. His accomplishments at Miami thus far are equally impressive, mainly because of the short time frame it has taken him to turn the Hurricanes into a national power.
Larranaga is hardly the only coach in recent years to achieve success so quickly after taking over a new job.
New Kansas State coach Bruce Weber currently has the Wildcats in position to win a conference title for the first time since 1977. In his inaugural season at Colorado State, Larry Eustachy has helped propel the Rams into the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1954.
North Carolina State reached the Sweet 16 last spring in Mark Gottfried's debut season while Missouri went 30-5 under first-year coach Frank Haith. Ironically, Haith was at Miami prior to Larranaga. There's a good chance they could be named national coach of the year in back-to-back seasons.
"Whenever you take over a program," Weber said, "there's a fine line between totally trying to change everything or just slowly adding and tweaking stuff as you get to know the kids. There's also nothing wrong with keeping some stuff the same, especially if it's worked for those players in the past.
"That's what we've been able to do."
Indeed, Weber, Larranaga and Eustachy all inherited unique situations. Instead of walking into programs that needed to be rebuilt, all three coaches took over teams that were far from broken or downtrodden.
K-State and Colorado State both reached the NCAA tournament last spring under previous coaches Frank Martin and Tim Miles. Miami fell short of greatness during Haith's tenure, but it's not as if the Hurricanes were bad. They had averaged 20.7 wins the previous three seasons before Larranaga was hired.
Ideal as the scenarios may seem, coaches said inheriting semi-healthy teams and getting them to show improvement from the get-go is far from easy.
"The expectations are extremely high and sometimes false," Eustachy said. "That's the worst scenario, when you have huge expectations and they can't be met. Even if you were the resurrection of John Wooden, they couldn't be met."
When he became the coach at Southern Illinois in 1998, he said folks in Carbondale joked that winning five games in his first season would make fans happy.
"We ended up winning 15," Weber said, "but the pressure wasn't there. In other jobs I've had [at Illinois and K-State] people immediately say, 'Are you going to get us back to the NCAA tournament this year? Are you going to take us back to the Sweet 16?'
"It's not an easy thing to do. It's a different dynamic. People don't appreciate coaches that come in and take over teams that are expected to win."
And even when success is achieved, coaches don't always get the credit.
Weber guided Illinois to a 37-2 record and an appearance in the 2005 NCAA title game just two seasons after replacing Bill Self after Self left for Kansas. But instead of praising Weber for the accomplishment, the common refrain among basketball fans is that he "won with Self's players."
"If you said that," Weber said, "then you could also say, 'Bill went to Kansas and won with Roy's players. And Roy went to North Carolina and won with Matt Doherty's players.'
"After a while they become your players. You might not have recruited them, but when you're with them more than the previous coach it's part of it. It just happens. It has to happen."
Eustachy knows folks probably credit Miles as much as him for Colorado State's success.
"It's tough following a good coach and even tougher following a popular coach," Eustachy said. "But think about it: If a guy like Bruce Weber just showed up at Kansas State and rolled the balls out and said, 'OK, you guys know how to do it, see you at the game,' they wouldn't be very good."
Difficult as dealing with outside pressure can be, new coaches also must handle the delicate situation that exists within their own locker room. It's tough to tell a team to do things a certain way when it already has had success in a completely different style.
That's why wholesale change isn't always the answer -- at least not all at once.
Colorado State, for instance, was an efficient offensive team under Miles, and Eustachy said he couldn't have been more impressed with the Rams' work ethic and their willingness to follow instructions and accept coaching. But he also wanted the group to get mentally and physically tougher, because rebounding was an obvious weak point.
After placing an added emphasis on offseason conditioning, Colorado State now ranks first in the country in rebounding (42.3 RPG).
At Kansas State, the Wildcats always had been known for their defensive intensity and physicality in the paint under Martin. Weber encouraged his players to embrace those traits while becoming a more structured, disciplined team on offense.
Even though they'd won a bunch of games under Haith at Miami, the Hurricanes couldn't seem to get things done in crunch time, as evidenced by only one NCAA tournament appearance in seven years. That's where Larranaga came in.
"He's very poised in all situations, because he's been through these situations before," Gamble said. "It trickles down throughout the team and the rest of our staff.
"He just taught us to be more consistent and to not let the frustrations of a big game get to us. We've had plenty of days in practice where we run things over and over again until it becomes second nature to us. Difficult situations in practice make games a lot easier."
So, too, does a raucous home crowd, which is exactly what Miami has been drawing in the wake of its recent success. Even Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have taken interest. The duo sat courtside for a Feb. 9 win over North Carolina.
"I think people noticed that," Larranaga told reporters. "I know recruits noticed. I think the nation is noticing now."
Important as it is to get fans behind the program, the most vital thing is to get players to buy into their new coach as a person.
During his first few months at Kansas State last spring, Weber hit the road for recruiting trips during the day before returning to Manhattan to put his team through 10:30 p.m. workouts each night. Haith had numerous one-on-one meetings with Missouri's players after arriving in Columbia prior to last season. Eustachy said he tried to be as candid as possible when addressing his new squad at Colorado State.
"I told them I wasn't going to judge anybody, nor did I want to be judged," Eustachy said. "Nobody was to compare either coach to either coach.
"I told them, 'In time, I'm not going to demand your respect. I'm going to earn it. The same goes for you. I don't care what you've done here. You're going to have to prove to me who are and where you fit on this team.
"Brutal honesty, from the heart, kind of takes care of everything."
Colorado State, Kansas State and Miami are each in the hunt for conference titles and high seeds in the NCAA tournament. Missouri all but cliched a postseason berth by beating fifth-ranked Florida Tuesday in Columbia.
In some form or fashion, each team has created a buzz in college basketball. And they've done it with coaches who did more than maintain a level of success at their new program. They improved on it.
"No one thought Miami would do what they're doing or that Missouri would do what they did last year," Haith said. "But good things happen when everyone buys in.
"Sometimes change is good."
A: Marcus Smart -- The Oklahoma State guard is a leading candidate to take home both national freshman of the year and Big 12 player of the year honors. He's averaging 19.1 points during the Cowboys' seven-game winning streak along with 6.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.3 steals. His head-to-head matchup with Kansas' Ben McLemore -- who is also a candidate for both awards -- will be huge.
B: Conference races -- Although there are always a few exceptions, most of the time we have a pretty clear picture by now of who is going to win the league title in most of the major conferences. But this season that's hardly the case. Races in the Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Missouri Valley, Horizon and Mountain West all feature multiple teams who could emerge as champions. The next two or three weeks should be fascinating.
C: Pittsburgh -- The Panthers have been referred to as an "underrated" team all season. But it's difficult to get too excited about Jamie Dixon's squad after what happened this past weekend. On Saturday, the Panthers lost to Marquette 79-69 -- their second setback against the Golden Eagles this season. Two nights later they fell victim to Notre Dame 51-42. Pittsburgh's schedule is weak from this point forward. It owns Big East wins against Syracuse, Cincinnati and Georgetown but didn't beat anyone noteworthy in nonconference play, so the Panthers (20-7, 8-6) can't complain if they get a mediocre seed.
D: Bob Huggins and Rick Barnes -- Both coaches have led their programs to the Final Four and have had magnificent careers overall. But I'm shocked at how bad Huggins' West Virginia team and Barnes' Longhorns squads are this season. Even worse is that I don't see either of them being significantly better next season. It's a troublesome situation for both programs, especially with schools such as Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa State all surging.
F: SEC -- I'm not saying it's unprecedented, but I can't remember a time when a "Big Six" conference was this weak. OK, OK I'll give you last season's Pac-12. But still, beyond Florida and maybe Missouri and Ole Miss, there isn't a team that's worthy of an NCAA tournament berth. On a positive note, things won't be this way forever. Seven SEC coaches are in either their first or second season. Their teams will get better as they develop continuity.
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Top defensive players (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Jason King, Myron Medcalf and Dana O'Neil)
1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana - 48 (3)
2. Aaron Craft, Ohio State - 44 (1)
3. Jeff Withey, Kansas - 34 (1)
4. Chris Obekpa, St. John's - 27
5. Briante Weber, VCU - 20
6. Zeke Marshall, Akron - 19
7. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State - 16
8. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida - 13
9. Russ Smith, Louisville - 11
10. (tie) Travis Releford, Kansas; Peyton Siva, Louisville - 7
Others receiving votes: Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon 6; Shane Larkin, Miami 6; Gorgui Dieng, Louisville 4; Roosevelt Jones, Butler 4; Mike Bruesewitz, Wisconsin 4; Keith Appling, Michigan State 3; Julian Gamble, Miami 2; C.J. Aiken, Saint Joseph's 2; Mike Hart, Gonzaga 2; D.J. Cooper, Ohio 1; Mike Muscala, Bucknell 1.
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. Florida clearly misses the presence of reserve forward and second-leading rebounder Will Yeguete, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a knee injury.
The Gators were out-rebounded 40-28 in Tuesday's 63-60 loss at Missouri, and coach Billy Donovan said his team's lack of depth in the paint resulted in fatigue late in the game.
"It's going to be a battle for us every game right now," Donovan said. "We don't have the same team. We had Casey Prather at 6-foot-5 guarding [6-9 Missouri forward Alex] Oriakhi at the center spot. We had Michael Frazier at 6-3 guarding [6-8 Missouri forward Laurence] Bowers. They do the best they can. But more often than not we're going to have a hard time rebounding with that lineup."
2. One of the few bright spots for Baylor lately has been freshman Ricardo Gathers, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward who is built like an All-Pro football player -- or better yet, a WWE wrestler. Gathers averages 6.2 rebounds in just 17.1 minutes off the bench.
Recently Baylor coach Scott Drew compared Gathers to former forward Quincy Acy, who led the Bears to two Elite Eights in the past three years before being drafted by the Toronto Raptors last spring. Acy is an inch shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Gathers.
"If I had that body someone would've gotten hurt," Acy told me by phone Saturday. One day earlier, Acy drove from his native Dallas to Waco to talk with Gathers.
"I told him to look at every rebound and every loose ball as a dollar sign," Acy said. "I wasn't the most skilled guy in college, but I played hard and I hustled. Rico is in that same boat. I told him he needs to do the little things to help his team win, because players on winning teams are the players who get noticed [by NBA scouts]."
3. An NBA general manager told SNY.tv this week that the 2013 draft class is so weak that more than a half-dozen prospects in the 2014 class would be taken ahead of whomever is selected with the No. 1 pick this summer.
"As a result," the GM told the news outlet, "you're going to see a lot more guys putting their name in knowing they'll go higher in this draft, even though they may not be ready. [They know] next year's class has such incredible depth that they could actually play better and improve and drop their draft status next year."
The GM added that current high school seniors Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Noah Vonleh and Aaron and Andrew Harrison all would be selected ahead of anyone in the 2013 draft class. Interesting
4. USC probably had no intention of making Bob Cantu its full-time coach when it placed the interim tag on him for the rest of the season after firing Kevin O'Neill last month. At the very least, though, Cantu has given school officials reason for pause.
The Trojans are 5-4 under Cantu, with one of the losses coming in overtime against Arizona State and another in a two-point setback against Oregon.
"He's given guys some freedom and lets them play through mistakes," point guard Jio Fontan said. "We're just trying to make the most of our season."
If Cantu isn't named the Trojans' next head coach there's a good bet his success over the past month could lead to a head-coaching opportunity elsewhere.
5. Speaking of under-the-radar teams beginning to make some noise, former Big East dreg Providence is improving quickly under second-year coach Ed Cooley. The Friars are now 14-11 overall and 6-7 in league play. Their four-game winning streak includes victories over Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Villanova.
Bryce Cotton (20.4 points per game), Kadeem Batts (14.9 PPG) and LaDontae Henton (13.4 PPG) all average double figures. And point guard Vincent Council averages 7.3 assists. Could Providence make Wednesday's game at Syracuse interesting?
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it. Note: Current players were not considered.
Louisville's All-Rick Pitino team
G: Reece Gaines -- Earned third-team All-American honors as a senior in 2003
G: Taquan Dean -- Scored 1,657 career points; hampered by ankle injury as a senior
G: Terrence Williams -- No. 11 pick in 2009 draft after averaging 11.2 points per game in four seasons
G/F: Francisco Garcia -- Current NBA player scored 15.7 points on 2005 Final Four team
F: Earl Clark -- No. 14 pick in 2009 draft averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds as a junior
G: Edgar Sosa -- Won 102 games in four-year career; averaged 13.1 points as a senior
F: Juan Palacios -- Averaged 9.7 points as a freshman on 2005 Final Four team
F: David Padgett -- Battled through injuries and became ultimate team leader from '05-08
Never doubt: Buzz Williams, Marquette
Never depend on: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest
Fortunate: Notre Dame (three overtime wins this month)
Underrated: Erik Murphy, Florida
Overrated: Myck Kabongo, Texas
Figuring things out: California
Fading: Ohio State
Starting to lose faith in: VCU
Not giving up on: Iowa State
What took you so long? Jordan Henriquez, Kansas State
Is he still on the team? Mike Moser, UNLV
Magnificent: Russ Smith, Louisville
Maddening: Russ Smith, Louisville
Should stay but probably will go: (tie) Isaiah Austin, Baylor; Alex Poythress, Kentucky
Could go but just might stay: Victor Oladipo, Indiana
Best big six team with a losing record in conference: Illinois
Worst big six team with a winning record in conference: USC (although improving)
Really wants to make the NCAA tournament: Saturday Maryland
Really doesn't want to make the NCAA tournament: Tuesday Maryland
Should be entertaining: Pac-12, Big East, A-10 and Big Ten tournaments
Meh: Big 12, MVC, MWC and ACC tournaments
Yikes: SEC tournament
Should be a national coach of the year candidate but isn't (yet): Jim Crews, Saint Louis
Should be a national player of the year candidate but isn't (yet): Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
at Oklahoma State 62, Kansas 58: The Cowboys and Jayhawks are tied for second place in the Big 12 standings, a half-game behind Kansas State, and OSU already has defeated Kansas this season at Allen Fieldhouse. Gallagher-Iba Arena will be as loud as it has been all season. This could be the game of the year in the Big 12.
at Syracuse 65, Georgetown 57: If this game weren't at Syracuse, I might pick Georgetown, which should enter Saturday's tilt having won eight straight. (The Hoyas play DePaul Wednesday). The home-court advantage and record crowd will give Syracuse the edge in this one, though, and make Jim Boeheim's squad the favorite to win the Big East title.
Kansas State 72, at Texas 63: The Longhorns are better now that Myck Kabongo is back in the lineup -- but not that much better. K-State is seeking its first conference title since 1977. The Wildcats don't have a bad loss on their résumé -- and it still won't after Saturday.
at Colorado State 66, New Mexico 64: Larry Eustachy's Rams are ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1954 and all but a lock to make the NCAA tournament. A Mountain West Conference title is also within reach, but a victory over New Mexico is vital. The Lobos are 9-2 in league play. CSU is 8-2.
Michigan State 59, at Ohio State 54: The Buckeyes are in a world of hurt. Thad Matta's squad had lost three of its past four games entering Wednesday's home tilt with Minnesota. Michigan State, meanwhile, has withstood a rash of injuries and emerged as one of the top teams in the country. These are two teams going in opposite directions.
at Michigan 72, Illinois 59: The Illini's chances at earning an NCAA tournament berth are looking stronger and stronger. Barring a complete collapse down the stretch, they'll get in. Winning this game, though, will be a tall task. Michigan will have had a full week off and plenty of time to correct the ills that have led to losses in three of its past five games.
at Notre Dame 70, Cincinnati 62: Notre Dame has won four of its past six games, and three of the victories have come in overtime. The Fighting Irish beat Cincinnati 66-60 on the road Jan. 7, and things certainly won't be any easier on the Bearcats inside the Joyce Center, which is one of the toughest places to play in the country.
23rd Street Brewery, Lawrence, Kan.: I had dinner here last week with a few Kansas State fans and, despite getting the stink eye from a few Jayhawks patrons, the experience (and the food) couldn't have been any better. The menu is huge and features a handful of different dishes named after KU sports celebs. The (Jeff) Withey is a brat topped with chili, Tex-Mex fondue and Fritos. The Bill Self is mac and cheese topped with Buffalo chicken tenders, and the Charlie Weis is mac and cheese covered with chili and Fritos. I ordered the Cajun pasta, which was loaded with chicken, shrimp and a few veggies. It was extremely spicy, which was perfect for me. Honestly, it was probably the single greatest thing I've ordered at a restaurant in the past few months.
Lafayette Coney Island, Detroit: Along with being the hometown of Kid Rock and the center of the automotive industry, the Motor City is also known for its chili dogs. Who knew? The two most famous spots in the city for these delicacies sit next to one another on the corner of Lafayette Boulevard downtown. I was told to pick Lafayette Coney Island over American Coney Island, and the reviews I read suggested Lafayette, as well. I'm confident I made the right choice. About 40 hot dogs were sizzling on a grill when I walked into this historic, diner-style joint. I quickly ordered two coneys (hot dogs with mustard, chili and onions) and an order of chili fries. I also ordered a regular Coke from the fountain. I'm usually a Diet Coke kind of guy, but when you're eating chili dogs, you might as well go with the hard stuff. The franks had the perfect snap, and the chili was rich in spice and flavor. Even better, the guy behind the counter told me Lafayette stayed open until 4 a.m. Because really, is there a better time of day to eat a chili dog than 4 a.m.?
Colorado State, Kansas State and Miami are in the hunt for conference titles. And they're doing it with recent coaching hires who did more than maintain a level of success at their new programs. They've raised it to new levels.