Rhymes, rhythm and hard work: Behind the scenes with Miami
Inside Miami (Cont.)
"Let's listen to the music. Let's get ready to go."
AUSTIN, Texas -- Please, try to find something normal in this locker room scene: That the least-jaded coach in the NCAA tournament is a 63-year-old who's been in the business for 42 years? That the one way to make him worried, 41 minutes before tip-off of his Miami Hurricanes' third-round game against Illinois, is by insufficiently getting down to the Busta Rhymes track that's being blasted on a Bose SoundDock? Or that the coach is bobbing his head and clapping to the words "BREAK YO' NECK," while he sits with his players in a four-row arrangement of chairs, facing a whiteboard covered with strategic plans?
God bless Jim Larranaga, who gauges his players' pre-game readiness not by trying to read deeply into their souls, but rather by letting them play a song and seeing how much soul they exude. The looser they are, the better. Larranaga's only restriction is that they choose PG-13 radio edits of the hip-hop tracks. His idea of fun is innocent and almost child-like, and it does not include cursing.
Perhaps the lone normal thing, here in the pressure-cooker of the NCAA tournament, is the presence of nerves. Players mouthed the words to the early verses, but as Larranaga surveys the room late in the song and sees only subdued head-bobbing, you get the notion that he's sensing more tension than he'd like. Why? Because last Friday, before No. 2 Miami's Round of 64 game against No. 15 Pacific, he became positively giddy when senior forward Kenny Kadji popped up out of his chair during Future's "Karate Chop (Remix)" and started dancing and pumping his right arm, riling up his teammates. That was the prelude to a 29-point rout.
When the music stops, Miami's assistant coaches review the game plan. Chris Caputo, who handles all opposition scouting, runs down the defensive matchups and their profiles; Michael Huger, the defensive coordinator, hammers home the importance of preventing rhythm threes in transition; Eric Konkol, the offensive coordinator, covers their early script of plays. It's a thorough and rapid-fire knowledge drop, and it only raises the level of seriousness in the room as the time remaining in the Florida-Minnesota game, shown on a digital wall clock, ticks away.
As Larranaga stands to make his final remarks, he picks up a small black ball that the team uses for stretching. "This is about the game you love!" he says in a raised voice, taking things up another notch. He asks them to visualize that it's a basketball, and pleads with them to close out, with hands high, on Illinois' three-point attempts.
Now he is yelling: "And when the shot goes up, what are you gonna do? You're gonna block out!" And now he is actually boxing out junior reserve Raphael Akpejiori, who's in the front row. When Larranaga continues -- "The ball goes off the boards, you rebound with two hands!" -- he fires the ball off the wall behind him, and then to his right, to simulate grabbing boards. "And when the ball gets loose," he says, throwing it down to his left ...
Larranaga never finishes this line, because he -- dual hip-replacement surgeries be damned -- dives on the ball, and all the tension in the room combusts. Players cheer and fly out of their seats to help him up. He pleads with them to be strong with the ball, and offers a final image of his fingers slowly interlocking.
"Come together," he says. "Closer and closer. One team. One unit. And one goal. Everybody, play smart, play hard, play together."
After Miami breaks its huddle -- every time, they say "1-2-3, together" -- sophomore point guard Shane Larkin amuses himself with a wide-eyed mimic of Larranaga's come-together hands. Kadji is shaking his head in disbelief: "He can't do a lot more of those [dives]. He's going to kill himself." Senior two-guard Durand Scott picks up the black ball and re-enacts Larranaga's rebound-and-dive scene, laughing hysterically.
Now, Miami is ready to go.
"Here's an Iverson two-clear Brazil action." Obviously.
The first stop in Sports Illustrated's four-day, inside look at the Hurricanes' path through Austin is the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, their hotel on the campus of the University of Texas. Caputo has set up a makeshift scouting station in the lobby to study film of potential third-round opponents Illinois and Colorado just before dinner on Thursday.
Miami does deep dives into its scouting, and Caputo's setup consists of an iPad with the Illinois page on kenpom.com's website and recent box scores in various browser windows; charts his graduate assistants made of the frequency of sets run by Illinois in its past three games; his handwritten notes that will form the basis of the full scouting report; and a PC laptop with video of the Illinois-Indiana Big Ten tournament game open in an XOS Digital application.
He is identifying and annotating the Illinois plays that are must-see material for the team, and narrating them on the fly in arcane Xs-and-Os-speak: "Alright, so that's a step-up pick-and-roll into basically three out. ... A.T.O. on B.O.Bs, they're zoning Laker. ... This is like horns, with diagonal rolls. ... Here's an Iverson two-clear Brazil action.
"I need to get to a point in the next two days," he says, "where I'm not drawing any of this up as I'm talking to the team about it."
Why is Caputo scouting Illinois before Miami has even played Pacific? Because he already spent Sunday night, all day Monday, and then 12 hours on a private plane on Tuesday poring over video of the Tigers, while flying between Miami and Rye, N.Y. Both Caputo and Larranaga played at Queens' Archbishop Molloy High for famed coach Jack Curran, who passed away the previous Thursday at the age of 82. He was so influential in their lives that it was vital for them -- along with Larranaga's wife, Liz, and sons John and Jay -- to attend Curran's wake in Rye, using a Miami booster's plane to make it there and back by 1 a.m. Wednesday.
At the wake, Larranaga told stories about Curran, who was still coaching him from long-distance earlier this month. After Miami's loss at Duke on March 2, in which Blue Devils forward Ryan Kelly returned from a foot injury to score 36 points, Curran cracked up Larranaga with an over-the-phone rant:
"You guys don't play any defense! I was yelling at the TV, 'Kelly can shoot! Doesn't everybody know that Kelly can shoot?' How come you don't know he can shoot? Tell your players, that kid Kelly can shoot!"
It was Curran who got Larranaga his first job offer and encouraged him to take it. Coming out of Providence in 1971, Larranaga was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 11th pick of the sixth round (96th overall) that March. But when Curran took his Molloy players down to Davidson College for Terry Holland's camp that July, and Holland said he was looking to hire an assistant with New York Catholic-school ties, Curran recommended Larranaga.
"He just had his wedding, and he's on his honeymoon," Curran said. "Call him and offer him the job."
"But he got drafted by the Pistons," Holland said.
"Yeah," Curran said, "but he's not gonna make it."
Before the Pistons could cut him that fall, Larranaga left camp to take the job. He started working at Davidson on Sept. 15, 1971. He was 21 then, and 42 years later he is still the coach who arrives at team dinner on the first full day of the NCAA tournament acting as if he's experiencing basketball Christmas for the first time. "Have you guys been watching games?" he asks his assistants. "I've been flipping channels like crazy up in my room."
"I want to begin with a question: Are you having any fun yet?"
Near the start of Miami's full-team scout meeting for Pacific, on Thursday night in a classroom at the AT&T Executive Center, Larranaga asks his players if they, too, have been glued to their TVs.
Backup freshman center Tonye Jekiri, who came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2010, and may not be familiar with the CBS/Turner deal, tells him, "Our TV does not have games on."
"Your TV doesn't?" Larranaga asks.
"Not on ESPN, ESPN2 ..."
This sets off waves of laughter. Particularly since there's a CBS camera crew in the room, filming Larranaga's speech.
"They're not on ESPN," Larranaga says. "Do you have a remote? In your room. On the remote, it says guide ..."
Eventually he gets back to talking about fun -- about games as fun. "I want to refer you back to earlier in the season, when we played Michigan State at home. Do you remember how you felt going into that game? Remember how you were feeling, the excitement of that game? Top-15 team in the country. Coming into our arena and we were pumped, right?
"And as we moved further along and had Duke coming in, remember how excited you were about that? Was there any fear, or did you put a lot of pressure on yourself? No, I don't think so. And [when] we played Carolina, and we were all excited about playing them?
"That's what the NCAA tournament is all about. That kind of enjoyment, of looking forward to the competition. Because if you've already seen, if you've been watching the games, everybody's good. Southern is playing Gonzaga, and it's a great game. Davidson playing Marquette, the Southern Conference versus the Big East. It's a great game, because everybody's got great players. And every game we play in this tournament is gonna be a great game."
Larranaga considers mental conditioning to be the most important aspect of his job, and he acts as half-coach, half-shrink. Miami often pivots quickly between the psychological and the analytical, as they do here, when the lights go down, a headshot of Pacific's point guard appears on the projector screen, and Caputo launches into the scouting report.
"Let's review their personnel," he says. "[Lorenzo] McCloud -- Shane, he's yours. Driver, attacker in transition. Gotta stop the ball, can't give him a head of steam going to the rim. Really want to keep him out of the lane. Prefers his right hand. They'll clear that right side for him, you know on those side pick-and-rolls we're going to go underneath. Loves the snake move. We want to be out showing on middle pick-and-rolls, inside pick-and-rolls, trying to send him uphill."
"Over communicate in a stance."
At the top of their whiteboard before every game, the Hurricanes have a thought of the day. They only change it if they lose, and so the pre-Pacific one here in their Austin locker room -- "Over communicate in a stance" -- has been in use since March 9 against Clemson, and all through their ACC tournament run. It reminds them to talk on defense, and Huger, in his portion of the speech, says that the game "is all about our transition defense."
Pacific is a heavy underdog with one dangerous-in-the-tourney attribute: It ranks 12th nationally in three-point percentage, and transition threes could be the great equalizer. Larranaga hammers it home in his closing remarks, pointing at eight different names on the personnel list: "Shooter, shooter, shooter, shooter. Shooter, shooter, shooter, shooter. ... We've got to defend the three."
Miami defends it rather well. Pacific misses seven three-point attempts and commits eight turnovers before it can finally connect from deep, with 1:21 left in the first half. By then the score is 36-16, and even Pacific's fans have resigned themselves to a rout. After one debatable whistle, a man in the Tigers' cheering section merely yells, "Ref! They don't need your help."
The 'Canes hold Pacific to 0.777 points per possession, its third-worst offensive game of the season. The defense that led them to the ACC regular-season and tourney titles, and ranks 18th nationally in efficiency, has shown up for the dance.
"Is Florida Gulf Coast too new to have a fight song?"
Back at its hotel on Friday night, Miami's sneak-peek meeting -- for a quick first look at Illinois film -- is delayed because the 'Canes, like the rest of the country, get caught up in Dunk City Madness. iPhone screens all over their dining room are tuned to No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast's upset-in-the-making over No. 2 Georgetown, and Miami has reason to take considerable joy in it: The team traveled to FGCU's Fort Myers, Fla., gym on Nov. 13 for its second game of the season, and were beaten by 12 while Scott was suspended. That was the point at which the 'Canes were widely written off as a serious threat in the ACC.
Caputo jokes about calling up a few national reporters who mocked them for that loss, and playing FGCU's fight song into the phone. A discussion then follows of whether FGCU, which began offering classes in 1997 and only became eligible for Division I postseason play in 2012, even has a fight song yet -- and if it does, is there a verse about the Miami upset? A school-record 4,552 fans showed up for that game, and FGCU's students stormed the court afterward. One of Miami's graduate assistants, Bryan Weber, sums up the feeling in the room by saying, after one big dunk, "Validate our loss!"
A group of seven Miami players -- Scott, Larkin, Reggie Johnson, Rion Brown, Julian Gamble, Garrius Adams and walk-on Steve Sorenson -- are watching in the opposite corner of the room. "Two TVs, two games, two phones," Johnson says of his viewing setup, as North Carolina-Villanova and FGCU-Georgetown unfold simultaneously. When Eagles point guard Brett Comer throws the no-look lob that makes the Eagles famous, the Hurricanes start hollering.
A few seconds later, Jekiri, sitting alone at a different table, cheers as his phone -- apparently with a slower wi-fi connection -- shows the same thing. More laughs ensue.
"He's watching it on ESPN," someone says.
"Jay-Z is trying to sign me, but I'm focused on basketball."
Weird off-day: The Hurricanes have barely begun their Saturday afternoon practice at the Erwin Center when the building's fire alarm goes off, forcing a 30-minute evacuation. While the cause is investigated -- there's no actual fire -- they kill time in a way that pleases Larranaga: with a freestyle rap battle. Beats are pounded onto the arena's metal doors, and Gamble, along with Scott, Kadji and Larkin, are rapping over them. Johnson, their mammoth backup center, abstains, citing ongoing negotiations with Jay-Z's label. "You have to pay to hear my lyrics," he says.
When practice is allowed to resume, they work on defending the Illini's frequent ball-screen actions, particularly with star Brandon Paul, and focus on taking away as many three-point attempts as possible. Larranaga insists that it will be a "volume game," and that no team they've played this season, aside from Duke or Carolina, has looked to take as many long-range attempts as the Illini will on Sunday.
In their scouting meeting at the hotel on Saturday night, immediately after dinner, Caputo introduces Paul by saying, "Durand, he's yours. This guy's got the ability to have a big game. He's had 30 in games this year. ... He can get going from deep, deep range. We want to play him like a Joe Harris [from Virginia], like a [P.J.] Hairston [from UNC]: Be there on the catch, make him a dribbler. ... We do not want to give him a large number of three point shots."
Illinois has lived and died by the three all season, and it has occasionally lived very large, knocking off two of the No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga and Indiana) in the bracket. Miami could very well live or die by the quality of its close-outs.
"Let's get this win so I can postgame rap."
At 6:45 p.m. on Sunday, the sounds of the second half of Florida-Minnesota are audible in the Hurricanes' locker room, where they're stretching as a team. Gamble mentions that he'd like the opportunity for a celebratory freestyle.
Weber, the graduate assistant in charge of putting on the players' pre-game music selection, is playing the Busta Rhymes track out of his iPhone in the hallway, double-checking that the file he downloaded works, and that it really does not contain profanity. Caputo, who played for Division III Westfield (Mass.) State, taking bus trips to games and eating team meals at McDonald's, is talking to director of basketball operations Mike Summey about not taking these NCAA tournament runs for granted. Soon their countdown to the Round of 32 begins. Chairs are re-arranged. Players take their assigned seats. Larranaga tells everyone to listen to the music.
The game could not start much better: Miami's early-offense script generates a 7-2 lead after the first three possessions, and the 'Canes force Illinois to miss its first four three-point attempts. But Illini power forward Tyler Griffey gets hot from deep -- it's like the Ryan Kelly problem all over again -- and Miami takes only a three-point lead into the break, at 29-26.
Things only get more tense in the final minutes, as Illinois, powered by a late scoring barrage from Paul, holds a 55-54 lead with 1:24 left. This is when Larkin delivers the signature moment of his young college career: Isolated on the right wing with D.J. Richardson defending him, Larkin feigns a hard drive to his right -- and then executes a lightning-quick step-back move and swishes a three-point dagger with 1:02 remaining. On the ensuing Illinois possession, a ref's questionable call -- awarding the ball to the 'Canes after Kadji appears to tip a rebound attempt out of bounds -- seals what becomes a 63-59 victory. They survive to earn just the second Sweet 16 trip in school history, and the first since 2000. Prior to this season, no one on Miami's roster had even appeared in an NCAA tournament game.
"When I hit that shot, the first thing I thought was ..."
When Larkin is in the locker room, he admits something about his step-back dagger, which, aside from Aaron Craft's buzzer-beater against Iowa State, might have been the most cold-blooded shot of the tourney's first weekend. It is not some clichéd admission about practicing that shot in his Orlando driveway -- or rather, since Larkin is the son of a Hall of Fame shortstop, his private court -- as a child. No, it is that when he swished the three, his immediate reaction was, "Now I don't have to take that test."
Larkin had a Tuesday midterm looming in a sports marketing class, and he had been freaking out about his lack of preparedness. The shot buys him another week. It buys Gamble another chance to freestyle, once the media is allowed in. His first line will be: "Sweet Six-teen, we goin', Wash-ing-ton D-C, we flowin'."
And it buys Larranaga another trip to D.C.'s Verizon Center, where his George Mason Patriots clinched their magical Final Four trip in 2006, capturing the hearts of a city and a nation of basketball fans. He paces the front of the room like a soldier, waiting for players who were doing on-court interviews to return. As he tries to collect his thoughts, Larranaga keeps whispering one word: "Wow."
When all the Hurricanes are in place, their coach springs to life.
"I asked you guys to be fighters," he says. "And you know what I saw out there?"
In unison, they say: "Fighters."
Larranaga has a different answer.
He shadow-boxes with glee -- and then breaks into a full-on Ali Shuffle. After this, Larranaga praises all things: Brown's five threes. Scott's clutch tip-in and late free throws. Kadji's no-look shot in the post. Larkin's complete game. Jekiri asks the room to praise the coaching staff. Johnson, a massive human being, praises pizza rolls.
"I asked you this during the game," Larranaga says. "Are you having any fun yet? You've gotta enjoy the heck out of this.
"This," he says, "is what fun is."