March Madness cinderellas: Jim Larranaga and the evolution of the sleeper
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Navy . . . Cleveland State . . . Princeton . . . Ball State . . . Richmond . . .
We have here the links in the Theory of NCAA Tournament Cinderella Evolution. The plucky upstarts who, upset by the upset, pushed out the boundary of what the underdog could truly do. Each, in its own way, contributed to making your bracket the mess it is today.
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But then, Larranaga has already lived quite another March dream. Ten years ago this week, he led a team into the Sweet 16 that had no bluebood pedigree, no expectations, no shot.
Or so everyone thought. George Mason. You know the rest.
George Mason went to the Final Four. George Mason. The NCAA tournament changed that day.
"I think Barry Collier said it best to me. Collier’s the athletic director at Butler," Larranaga was saying Wednesday. "After we made it to the Final Four in ’06, he told me, 'You’ve just broken the four-minute-mile barrier. Now there’s going to be other mid-major programs that think they can get there.'"
The irony is too big to miss, of course. Four years later, Collier’s Butler was in the championship game. Then again the next year. And the Cinderella evolutionary process went on.
The Big Bang was in 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Assumptions would have to be proven wrong, step by step.
First, a low seed would have to beat a high seed. No. 13 Navy, with future Hall of Famer David Robinson, quickly took care of that in 1985, beating No. 4 LSU.
Next, it would have to happen against one of the game’s holy names, to show that nobody was sacred anymore. No. 14 seed Cleveland State over No. 3 Indiana in 1986.
But what about the lowest seeds of all? Lions to the slaughter, right? Why bother? Then came the night in 1989 when No. 16 seed Princeton was leading No. 1 seeded, mighty Georgetown by 10 points in the second half.
The ESPN ratings exploded by word of mouth. And though Georgetown escaped 50-49 when Alonzo Mourning either, depending upon perspective, blocked Kit Mueller’s last shot or fouled him -- "We’ll take that up with God when we get there," Princeton coach Pete Carill said that night – the game was a national smash.
Nobody would ever doubt the wisdom of 64 teams again. A major step.
But Georgetown, even with its aura, didn’t even get to the Final Four. Could a team from the outback beat, or at least push, one of the true national championship contenders?
Ball State in 1990, who came within one shot of beating UNLV in the Sweet 16, before losing 69-67. The same UNLV team that crushed Duke by 30 in the national championship game. It was true. Nobody was safe anymore.
Next in the process, one of the lowest seeds had to actually win a game. No. 15 seed Richmond in 1991, edging Syracuse and doing it in true Cinderella style.
Just before hitting a couple of essential late free throws, Richmond’s Eugene Burroughs looked up in the stands and winked at his father.
The next 15 years, there would be a pause in the evolution, for the unclimbable wall still stood there. The underdogs could have their fun in the first week, but by the regional championships, the biggest of the big boys would take over. The Final Four was an impossible dream.
Then came George Mason. Three of the teams the No. 11 seed Patriots conquered – Michigan State, North Carolina, Connecticut -- represented four of the previous six national championships. A slam-dunk fairy tale.
Ten years later, Larranaga understands what that month meant to the tournament, – and to himself. "It’s been a tremendous milestone in my career that has created a lot of opportunities, and we’ve tried to take advantage of those opportunities, including coaching at the University of Miami."
Indeed. No George Mason, no Jim Larranaga here this week. Maybe no Miami.
Standing in a hallway in the KFC Yum! Center Wednesday, looking back at 2006, he still berated himself for not having a flexible enough game plan for Florida in the Final Four, when George Mason lost 73-58. He used the same one had for the other juggernauts, with no room to tinker. Something to learn from. He assured that Thursday night against Villanova, Miami will have "Plan A, Plan B and Plan C."
He has toiled long in five years to exceed expectations, just as he did at George Mason.
"When my staff and I got there . . . there are a lot of things we were told that probably couldn’t be accomplished. The first was we’d never be able to beat Duke or (North) Carolina. Second one, we’d never be able to win an ACC regular season or tournament. And the third was we’d never be able to draw a crowd."
The record will show his Miami teams are 4-2 against Duke and 4-4 against Carolina. The Hurricanes won both the ACC season and tournament titles in 2013.
And all season tickets were sold before this year began, something that had never happened in any sport, ever, at Miami.
"So we’ve accomplished an awful lot," he said. "But we’ve still got a major goal in front of us."
He means the national championship, and this week will tell more about his immediate chances on that. But until then, Larranaga’s biggest greatest feat is what he and his team once meant to the Evolution of Cinderella.
Since then, Butler took it another major step forward, showing the underdog could not only get to the Final Four, but very nearly win it. Anything has been shown to be possible.
Well, almost. Two big steps remain.
A No. 16 seed has to bring down a No. 1, and someone has to go Butler one better and win the championship.
Maybe it can’t be done. Maybe it’s just too hard, with too many big beasts roaming the land.
But that’s what they once said about the Final Four.
Until Jim Larranaga proved otherwise.