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Mike Lopresti | | March 31, 2023

The parallels of Jim Larrañaga's two runs to the Final Four, 17 years apart

For the first time in program history, 5-seed Miami dances on to the Final Four

HOUSTON — Jim Larrañaga has passed this way before, of course. Before there could be a Butler in the Final Four, or a VCU, or a Florida Atlantic, there had to be a...

George Mason.

It was 17 years ago that the upstarts from Fairfax, Virginia knocked the wall down for all mid-majors. On the way to the Final Four, they shoved aside Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut — three of the previous six national champions — and Larrañaga was there to direct it all, reciting poems to his players before the games, whistling to get their attention during the games, dancing for joy with them after the games. In a fortnight, George Mason broadened the horizons for little guys everywhere.

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Tony Shinn was one of the guards who led the charge. “If I’m correct,” Larrañaga was saying this week, “we were his only scholarship offer in Division I.” This past Thursday, 17 years to the day that Shinn and his teammates showed up in Indianapolis for the Final Four, he was named head coach — at George Mason. The fairy tale comes with a postscript.

Jim Larrañaga with George Mason at the 2006 Final FourJim Larrañaga with George Mason at the 2006 Final Four.

Now Larrañaga is back in the Final Four at the age of 73, with a bigger school from a more renowned conference. What’s changed in 17 years?

Not the thrill.

“I want our players to enjoy this moment. Because you know what? It will last a lifetime,” he said in one media session this week. “Seventeen years ago, and you guys are still asking me about our run to the Final Four at George Mason. It never stops.”

Not his penchant for hope.

A Larrañaga story from those days: “When I got to George Mason I was interviewing assistant coaches for a position I had open and one of the guys who applied for the job said, ‘I really want to come here because I know you help your assistants and I really want to go to the ACC or Big East so I can get to the Final Four. I told a friend of mine, he’s out. He said why? I said because I want him to help George Mason get to the Final Four.

“Two years later, we did.”

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Not what’s important to him.

“I would say I’m more patient right now than back then,” Larrañaga said. “I was probably a better dancer back then. But here’s what I would say: In life you learn every day. I try to learn and try to pass that along to the players... Honestly, I feel like if all I ever did with my life was teach kids how to dribble, pass and shoot my life would not be very worthwhile.

“Everybody talks about my age but my players, they don’t see it that way. They might see me as their grandfather but we have a great working relationship because they know I care about them a great deal and that I want to help them achieve their goals.”

It so happens that the calendar in 2023 is the same as 2006, so the anniversaries are exact, which in a way brings the George Mason saga into even sharper focus. Miami (FL) reached this Final Four last Sunday by rallying past Texas. “You just love when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said. Seventeen years earlier to the day, he was talking about another surprise team getting to the Final Four.

“One of the thoughts of the day is from William Jennings Bryan, who wrote ‘destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice,” Larrañaga said after his Patriots shocked Connecticut in overtime in the Elite Eight. “That’s something we strongly emphasize to our players, that for us, we need to earn respect. No one is going to give it to us.”

Here in the noise of a Final Four, can Larrañaga even remember the UConn game nearly two decades later?

Are you kidding?

"What do you want to know?” he began. “We were down 12 with 12 seconds to go in the first half. Folarin Campbell drove to the basket, got fouled by their backup center — I can’t remember his name; big, strong kid. Got fouled, he made the layup, he made the free throw, we’re down nine. I went into the locker room and I, quite frankly, just said to the players, we’ve got these guys right where we want them.

“They were like, what do you mean? I said they think this game is over. They’re ahead and there’s no stopping them. We’ve just begun to play.”

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George Mason would make six consecutive 3-pointers in the second half and nearly win in regulation, but Connecticut tied it late. Still, there was no holding back the Patriots and they eventually won 86-84.

Thursday, the 2023 Hurricanes had their first look at NRG Stadium and Larrañaga was talking about his profession. “I might be 73 years old but I think age is just a number. I just love what I’m doing. I love coaching basketball. I’ve done it for 51 years and I hope to do it a lot longer. And what makes it so enjoyable are the players.”

Jim Larrañaga celebrating the Hurricanes' win over 1-seed Houston in the Sweet 16.Jim Larrañaga celebrating the Hurricanes' win over 1-seed Houston in the Sweet 16.

Seventeen years earlier to the day, the George Mason Patriots were in Indianapolis for the Final Four and Larrañaga was talking about his profession.

“Probably the most important talent you can have is the ability to focus, concentrate and try to do the best you can and do that consistently day after day, week after week, month after month. That’s a great talent. Most people are very inconsistent.”

Friday was open practice for the teams in NRG Stadium. Larrañaga has realized one thing hasn’t changed much from 2006.

“I told the players, wait until you see the stadium you’re playing in because it’s elevated, it’s humongous,” he said. “You’re not even going to be able to hear me. I whistle very loud, you’re not even going to be able to hear that because it’s such a large venue and the ceiling is so high.

“That’s where the similarities are.”

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Seventeen years earlier to the day, Friday was open practice for the teams in the RCA Dome. Larrañaga that afternoon: “I hope that the message that George Mason made it to the Final Four is not about winning, it’s about doing things the right way. It’s about supporting each other. We stand for something greater than ourselves.”

Miami goes against Connecticut Saturday night. Seventeen years earlier to the day, George Mason took on Florida and could never stop the Gators’ outside game, being outscored by 30 points from the 3-point line. It ended 73-58.

“I think we did something tremendous for college basketball and for teams out there who watched us play,” Shinn said that night. “We showed them that all you need is opportunity and a chance.”

From Larrañaga back in 2006:  “I think by what these players at George Mason have done, they’ve probably opened up the eyes of many people, including myself, that you don’t have to have 7-footers on your team or be the biggest and strongest team to have a great basketball team.”

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Larrañaga would stay five more seasons at George Mason and win one more NCAA tournament game, over Villanova in 2011. Then he went to Miami when the spot came open because he had been thinking about coaching in the ACC for a long time, back to his assistant days. “Having spent seven years at Virginia, reaching two Final Fours, that became not only a goal but a dream. If I could ever have that opportunity I was going to jump all over it,” he said Friday. “I accepted the job and have loved every minute of it.”

Jim Larrañaga will lead an unexpected team such love helped create onto the Final Four court Saturday night in Houston, 17 years to the day after he did the same thing in Indianapolis.

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