I told him the top five seemed likely.
"Really?" he said.
At which point, I asked what he thought.
"Honestly, I never think about it," Larranaga answered. "The only rankings that are important to me are the rankings of the KenPom.com stats in all of the categories that determine success or failure."
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This struck me as interesting because, just a day earlier, I'd sat with two dozen other reporters and listened to Larranaga detail his affection for advanced statistics. Now this 63-year-old supposed old-school coach was doing it again, in a different setting, while his wife, Liz, picked at a bowl of lentil soup. He was bucking stereotypes.
"I value those statistics," Larranaga said. "I value them for motivation."
Jim Larranaga has 20 winning seasons as a Division I head coach, a trip to the 2006 Final Four on his resume and the reputation of a highly-skilled tactician. His credibility has long been established. But when he arrived at Miami in April 2011 after 14 seasons at George Mason, this son of a Floridian and grandson of a Cuban immigrant didn't rely on past achievements to grab the attention of his new players. Instead, Larranaga asked them questions about them, confident the answers would probably come as a surprise.
"When I took the job at Miami, I met with the team and the very first thing I asked is, 'How good do you guys want to be?'" Larranaga said. "They were like, 'We want to get to the Final Four! We want to win a national championship!' I said, 'OK. Well, here are some categories that are important.'"
Larranaga mentioned defensive 3-point field goal percentage.
He asked his players where they thought they ranked.
"They said, 'Oh, we're pretty good,'" Larranaga said. "So I asked, 'What is pretty good? There are 345 Division I teams. One is the best. The worst is 345. Where do you rank?'"
They told him they were in the top 100.
Larranaga told them they were actually 224th.
"Then I told them, 'OK, turnovers are important,'" Larranaga said. "'One is the best. The worst is 345. Where do you rank?'"
They told him around 100.
He told them they were actually 218th.
"The first thing I needed them to know is where they needed to improve, and those numbers showed them because they are totally objective numbers," Larranaga said. "You can't argue with them. They show you what you need to work on. And, as a coach, if you don't know what you need to work on, then you're just practicing ... stuff. Yes, I want to practice what we're good at. But what I really want to practice is what we have to improve on to be really good, and I want my players to understand why we're doing it."
Those numbers forced Larranaga's players to understand.
So they got to work immediately.
Now the Hurricanes are 37th nationally in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage, 17th nationally in offensive turnover percentage, and those are just two of the reasons why they're 19-3 overall and 10-0 in the ACC heading into Wednesday night's game at Florida State. Larranaga and his staff took over, used advanced statistics to identify problems and then worked meticulously and relentlessly at solving those problems. That approach, combined with an experienced and talented roster, helped create one of college basketball's best stories and reinforce one of Larranaga's favorite expressions.
Think like a gardener; work like a carpenter.
"What does a gardener do? " Larranaga asked. "He plants seeds. And then he nurtures those seeds, but it takes a while. And a carpenter? He's very precise. If he makes a chair, one leg can't be longer than the other three. He has to be precise. So when we're working with our players, we're constantly planting seeds but each day working on things that are very, very specific. Those things might not come to fruition in a week or a month. It might take years. But when we planted those seeds like gardeners, we knew that, if we worked like carpenters, we could get here."
Here is on top of the ACC at a school that had never been ranked higher than eighth before this week and has advanced in the NCAA tournament just once since the 2001-02 season. Miami has long been considered such a tough job that Missouri hardly cared that Frank Haith never finished better than tied for fifth in seven years in the ACC. Missouri hired Haith anyway because, the administrators figured, who could do better than fifth in the ACC at Miami?
Answer: Jim Larranaga.
He took Haith's players, added point guard Shane Larkin, planted a bunch of seeds and started working like a carpenter -- on everything, but especially hard on the things that these same players struggled with before his arrival. Now Larranaga has a team that's pretty good at guarding beyond the arc, really good at taking care of the ball and two games ahead of everybody else in a league typically dominated by a Duke program that the Hurricanes beat by 27 and a North Carolina program that they beat by 26.