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The uniqueness of Jim Larranaga and lots of UM football nuggets; Dolphins, Heat

 

WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN

 

Mostly Canes talk today during a big week for the UM athletic program:

• Davon Reed knew playing for Jim Larranaga would be, well, interesting, when the UM basketball coach gathered his players a few years ago and asked them to write their own obituaries.

“Basically how we wanted to be remembered,” Reed said. “He wants you to think about yourself in the bigger picture, not just focus on being viewed as a basketball player. He’s a different coach.”

As UM begins NCAA Tournament play Thursday against Buffalo, Larranaga not only has proved to be an exceptional program-builder (he's 116-56 at UM), but also one of the sport’s most creative minds.

After all, what other coach gives his team geography quizzes? Or talks to them about terrorist attacks? Or takes them to a Broadway show, as he did last season?

“My job is to educate these guys, not just basketball but life skills,” Larranaga said, adding he learned the importance of this when he was assistant to Terry Holland at Davidson and Virginia. “What makes a person more successful is to be more well-rounded, to have a greater view of what the world is about.”

Geography fascinates Larranaga, and he gave his players a pop quiz asking them to identify the cities where ACC schools are based.

“At first, we're kind of like, 'Here goes another quiz,'” Reed said. “But we enjoy it because it keeps us sharp.”

Larranaga tells his players to make 200-plus passes each game (because ball movement often leads to better shots) and explains the game to them as if he were teaching a coaching seminar because he believes it's important players know “how coaches choose to do what they do and why. What makes a player more knowledgeable is when he understands all that, so that when we make a decision, they understand why we're doing it.”

He shows them lots of tape of the Spurs, Warriors and Larry Bird’s Celtics and sometimes goes around the room and quizzes them about what to expect from opponents.

“Even though we don't like the [pop quizzes], it really helps us learn,” guard Sheldon McClellan said.

Larranaga is certainly unique: He invited US Marine officers to speak to the team (according to McClellan), took them to a Navy ship in Charleston last season while educating them on World War II history, and had them watch a documentary on the history of the world.

But McClellan said the most creative thing Larranaga ever did was take the team to the roof of the BankUnited Center early last season to release 30 orange and black butterflies, as a metaphor for sticking together.

At 66, Larranaga occasionally dances for his team, to show he can relate to a younger generation.

“He definitely tries to stay current even though there's such a big age gap,” Reed said.

What most resonates, though, are the life lessons they will take with them long after they leave Coral Gables.

One example: Larranaga taught his players “how when you meet people," including NBA scouts, "you look them in the eye, give a firm handshake, say, ‘Yes sir, no sir.' That goes a long way,” said McClellan, who credits Larranaga for helping him raise his shooting percentage from 38.2 in his final season playing for Rick Barnes at Texas to 50.0 now.

“He helps you become a better person; basketball is almost kind of last with him,” McClellan said. “He deeply cares about you and wants the best for you. Definitely the best coach I ever played for.”

• I haven’t found a prominent analyst picking UM for the Final Four, but ESPN's Jay Bilas has the No. 3 seed Canes beating No. 2 seed Villanova in the Sweet 16 and losing to top-seeded Kansas in the South Regional Final. He spoke very highly of UM by phone today (more on that in our next post).

• At the MGM Grand and 11 other Nevada casinos, UM’s odds of winning the title are 20 to 1, 13th best in the country.

CHATTER FROM UM SPRING FOOTBALL PRACTICE OPENER

• Brad Kaaya, who worked mostly out of the shotgun last season, said he’s now working more under center.

“We’ve watched a whole lot of film of Georgia stuff, even 15 years back,” he said. “Pro style offense. Good running attack, which will make our play action game pretty solid.”

• Kaaya loves working closely with Mark Richt: “He’s really thorough, really detailed. He wants the whole team to do the right thing every single play, all 11 guys. He’s an awesome guy. He’s in there every single day [with the quarterbacks], every single meeting, every single play install. He’s watching everything the quarterback does. To have your head coach be hands on like that is really helpful.”

• And Richt really like what he’s seen from Kaaya: “I’m very impressed with the QBs in general as far as working hard, learning what we’re going to ask them to learn. They’ve got a lot to process. Brad did an excellent job.

“When they came back from spring break and they started covering things again, Brad and the rest of them did a great job studying in spring break. Brad, in particular, you can tell he’s a veteran. You can tell he’s been around. There are new things he’s learning. Mostly it’s things he’s already done that have a different name, quite frankly. We haven’t done anything that much different than what Miami would have done in the past, as far as concepts. The things that are new, he’s really embracing. I was pleased with what he did in the meetings and the practice field."

• Receiver Stacy Coley said it was a tough call not to turn pro but deferred to his mother, who “wanted me to get my education. I owe her that respect.”

• Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton said this defense, under Manny Diaz, is simpler and faster than the defensive approach used by former coordinator Mark D’Onofrio.

Diaz's system “lets us play free; I am not feeling confused,” Norton said. "It’s an attacking defense, so we have to get out of the 2-gap technique and all that kind of stuff and just fire off the ball, which is natural for us because that’s how we all played in high school. I feel comfortable in this defense.”

• Linebacker Jermaine Grace said the team is in better condition than a year ago after working with the new strength and conditioning staff, which is trying to build player stamina and explosiveness.

• With center Nick Linder and right tackle Sonny Odogwu sidelined, the first team offensive line (from left to right) was Trevor Darling, Kc McDermott, Alex Gall, Danny Isidora and Tyree St. Louis.

• With Darrion Owens limited by a knee injury, the first-team linebackers were Grace, Jamie Gordinier and Charles PerryTrent Harris was moved from outside linebacker back to defensive end.

• McDermott said “there’s a new kind of energy we have. The very first workout, a lot of people didn’t make it. It was very tough and a struggle for a lot of people because this is a new coaching staff and they’re doing things their way and we were used to it the old way.”

And then what happened?

“One thing about this team I love so much is we fought really hard within that first week to get acclimated,” McDermott said. “Everyone jumped on board. No one argued. No one said, ‘Screw this. I’m getting out of here.’ Everyone bought in....

“That’s what makes this a lot more fun. Everyone is doing their job. Everyone is going to practice on time. Everyone is at meetings, going to class. We haven’t had very many disciplinary problems with this team, and that’s what makes this fun.”

Please see the last post for a lot more Canes football from today.

CHATTER

• The Heat would need to fit impending free agent Luol Deng’s salary under the cap to keep him this summer, and that will be difficult if he continues his excellent work at power forward and if Miami can keep Hassan Whiteside.

Consider: Based entirely on Deng’s stats in 14 starts at power forward, only four power forwards are averaging more points this season than his 17.5 per game (Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge) and only four are averaging more rebounds than his 9.1.

• With Boston's loss to Indiana tonight, the Heat and Celtics have the same record. But Boston holds the tiebreaker, meaning the Heat is still in fourth in the East.

• NBC’s Cris Collinsworth advocates the Dolphins selecting Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander at No. 13. Collinsworth wrote his mock draft for Pro Football Focus, which he's an investor in.

“The NFL has always been a copycat league, and after the Broncos won the Super Bowl with a defense built around three quality corners and good pass rushers, other teams will follow," Collinsworth wrote about Miami's pick. "Alexander’s speed and quickness give him a slight edge here over Vernon Hargreaves, but the order for corners will come down to personal preferences.

“Hargreaves is slightly taller, heavier, and physically stronger than Alexander, but I think Alexander is the better cover corner so I give him the nod with the Dolphins. Alexander will have to prove that at 5-10 and 190 pounds he can still compete with taller receivers, but his quickness in man coverage will leave him attached at the hip in most situations.

“Alexander could play inside or outside in the nickel, which gives him added value. If a team can’t cover those quicker slot receivers on third down, the defense never gets off the field." 

Please see the last post for details on the latest veteran to meet with the Dolphins and details on Matt Moore's new deal.

• Twitter: @flasportsbuzz

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