Commentary

Miami shows power by whipping UNC

Jim Larranaga's Canes now 10-0 in the ACC and a real national-title contender

Updated: February 9, 2013, 9:37 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- The King was courtside at the BankUnited Center.

No, not that King. Yes, LeBron James was there, but in this building and on this campus, even he must defer to the royalty presiding over the Hurricanes' bench.

That would be Jim Larranaga, a man who blends in better with the Miami retirement set than the South Beach flavor.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James, Dwyane Wade
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsLeBron James and Dwyane Wade applaud the Hurricanes' win over North Carolina.

The black gold and traditional gold necklaces hanging from James' neck like Mardi Gras beads probably cost more than Larranaga's entire wardrobe, and odds are, Erik Spoelstra doesn't take a seat in the middle of the press scrum while his players talk at the podium -- as Larranaga did on Saturday.

But the unassuming 63-year-old is quickly becoming the talk of this town. The man who coached the first Final Four Cinderella entrant while at George Mason is now making that miracle look like a piece of cake.

What he's doing at Miami, in what should be the twilight of his career, is nothing short of the impossible.

He has built the University of Miami into a national championship contender.

In basketball.

Ponder that for a moment.

The Hurricanes on Saturday continued their decimation of Tobacco Road, beating the North Carolina Tar Heels, 87-61, in a game that was somehow more lopsided than that uneven score.

Couple that with Miami's 90-63 win against Duke earlier this year and you have stats of historic proportion. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hurricanes are the first team since the start of ACC play in 1953 to beat Duke and UNC in the same season by 25-plus points each.

In a season in which top teams seem to have all the consistency of a wet noodle -- please, take my No. 1 -- Miami of all things has been the model of consistency. The Hurricanes have lost just three times, each without one of their best players in the lineup (no Durand Scott against Florida Gulf Coast, not that that's an excuse, and no Reggie Johnson against both Arizona and Indiana State).

More impressive, perhaps, while everyone else is riding some sort of runaway rollercoaster, Miami is following the sort of arc a team wants to be following come February -- steadily upward. The Canes are better now than they were a week ago, were better a week ago than they were a month ago, and so on.

This is not a good team beating average competition.

This is a very good team. Period.

[+] Enlarge Jim Larranaga
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesJim Larranaga meets North Carolina's Roy Williams after Miami's convincing victory.

Worthy of a No. 1 seed right now? Absolutely.

A candidate for the top spot in the ranking? Sure.

A national championship contender? Why not?

"As a coach, when I look at a team to evaluate them, I look at the whole package,'' said North Carolina's Roy Williams. "They have the whole package. I'm impressed. They lost to Florida Gulf Coast? I'd hate like hell to play Florida Gulf Coast.''

The team that decimated North Carolina drained 15 of 26 3-pointers; won the rebounding edge by nine, dished out 17 assists, and shared the scoring. Shane Larkin, the son of Barry but who might soon change the dynamic to read Barry Larkin, father of Shane, had 18 points with nine assists; Scott and Kenny Kadji each chipped in 17.

Larkin and Kadji even put together a nice little off the backboard dunk that got James out his chair.

"We say, 'Bring everyone into the circle,''' Larranaga said. "When you get more people involved in the game, the more they feel good. Shane probably could have gone for a layup, but he saw an opportunity to get his teammate involved, so I have no problem with that.''

That's the thing about Larranaga. Maybe he's not young or particularly electrifying -- think Jim Boeheim's smilier, happier twin brother -- but he's far from stodgy.

He's been through the rodeo a few dozen times and isn't easily fazed. Asked about the current Miami mania while weaving through a collection of fans outside his office waiting for autographs, he shrugged.

The only thing I can compare it to is our Final Four run at George Mason, but that didn't start until March 17,'' he said. "This has been going on since about Jan. 23. But it doesn't bother me. Why? Because I watched Terry Holland deal with it every day for four years at Virginia.''

When Larranaga was named to replace the departing Frank Haith, the hire was met with a mixed bag of arched eyebrow and eh. Even the coach's inner circle wasn't sure.

They told him the obvious -- that Miami was a football school; that the state was a football and baseball state; that no one would come in from the 80-degree weather to watch basketball.

He shrugged, and without even a hint of defiance or arrogance said, watch me.

And now. Please.

Watch him.

The BankUnited Center enjoyed its third sellout in its past four games. Students lined up outside for tickets -- not exactly the hardship it is at, say Michigan, but still -- and earlier in the week when the university fielded the call that James, Dwyane Wade and Co. were looking for tickets, Larranaga jokingly said, "Tell them we're sold out.''

"I wouldn't call it stubborn or optimistic,'' he said. "I'd say it's experienced. They told me we couldn't draw well at Bowling Green. There may have been 1,000 people there my first season. They told me we couldn't get good players at George Mason, that they'd all go to Georgetown, Maryland or George Washington. When we went to the Final Four, eight of our guys lived within an hour of campus.''

Building the little engine that could versus a power in the North Carolina-Duke-centric world of the ACC, of course, are not exactly one and the same.

This was supposed to be the year when someone else dominated the league. Only that someone was supposed to be NC State, not Miami.

[+] EnlargeMiami Hurricanes
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesMiami's Trey McKinney Jones and Kenny Kadji box out North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo. The Hurricanes controlled the boards in the win.

And yet, here we are.

"People talk about how experienced and how old this team is,'' Williams said. "But they're also really talented.''

Williams may be a believer, but plenty still aren't.

Skeptics are hard sells, and the Canes are well aware.

"We definitely have a chip on the shoulder,'' Larkin said. "We're the University of Miami. We're not a traditional powerhouse. Some people still don't think we're a top-10 team in the country and coach has done a very good job of letting us know what people think about us.''

Two years ago, Chris Bosh came to Miami in the offseason and played a little pickup with the Hurricanes.

Afterward Larranaga asked the Miami Heat player what he thought about his team. After asking if he could be frank, Bosh told Larranaga a hard truth -- that his team was soft physically, that they didn't work hard enough and that they simply weren't very good.

A few weeks later, Larranaga had Bosh tell that to the Hurricanes. The coach had been preaching that for weeks, but he knew it would resonate slightly better coming from Bosh than himself.

Bosh came back to work with the Hurricanes this past summer.

"It wasn't the same,'' Larranaga said. "And we knew that.''

Now slowly everyone else is coming around to see what Bosh learned.

Even the King.

James declined an interview during halftime, telling ESPN.com, "Nah, it's my day off."

So the King rested.

And watched the other King do his work.

Dana O'Neil | email

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