Jim Larranaga’s last trip to the Verizon Center as coach of an NCAA tournament team gave him, and many college basketball fans, the memories of a lifetime.
Larranaga was back at the 18,277-seat arena a short distance from the White House on Wednesday — this time with the Miami Hurricanes —and it wasn’t long into a news conference advancing today’s East Regional semifinal game against Marquette that the 63-year-old coach was asked to harken back to 2006 and his run to the Final Four with George Mason.
“This is not just any other [building], this is the Verizon Center,” Larranaga said.
Before there was Butler or Virginia Commonwealth or Florida Gulf Coast, it was George Mason — which beat No. 1 seed Connecticut and Wichita State in the Verizon Center to reach the 2006 Final Four — that made it possible for the little guys in college basketball to really believe they could play with the traditional powers.
Larranaga returns seven years later to the nation’s capital, not with David, but Goliath. Unlike George Mason, a mid-major school that barely made it into the NCAA tournament in 2006, the second-seeded Hurricanes (29-6) are ACC regular-season and conference tournament champions and have been picked by Sports Illustrated to reach the NCAA title game April 8 in Atlanta.
The bridge between Mason and Miami is Larranaga, the national coach of the year who has the Hurricanes a victory away from heights never reached by UM’s program — the Elite Eight.
Larranaga has spoken to his players about George Mason’s run in ‘06, but in a season in which the Hurricanes have achieved unprecedented success, the focus is on the immediate and not the past.
“Coming into this building to them it’s just another venue, but to me and my staff it’s not because we have the memory, they don’t,” Larranaga said. “They want to create those memories for themselves and for this team.”
The Final Four is still two victories away for UM and it will have to get there without 6-foot-10, 292-pound center Reggie Johnson, who underwent surgery on Tuesday after injuring his knee in Sunday’s Round of 32 victory against Illinois in Austin, Tex. The team’s medical staff has told Johnson he could return to action if the Hurricanes reach the Final Four.
Although Johnson has been slumping of late, his girth will almost certainly be missed tonight against Marquette, whose front line includes 6-8, 290-pound Davante Gardner, the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year averaging 4.9 rebounds.
Johnson’s absence shortens a bench that wasn’t very deep in the first place beyond Rion Brown, a key to the victory against Illinois with 19 points, and Johnson. Seven-foot freshman Tonye Jekiri, who has played more than 10 minutes four times in his career, will get an increased role with Johnson sidelined and starting center Julian Gamble, averaging 20.4 minutes per game, may see his work rate increase substantially.
“A lot of guys have to step up,” Gamble said Wednesday. “We have to do it by committee, every guy doing more than they were before, just help fill that void. Not having him with us is a blow for us, psychologically… because we love him and that’s our brother and we feel for him. But that’s motivation for us as well, to play our best basketball, so we can make it to Atlanta so he can be with us again.”
Marquette (25-8) tied for first place in the Big East regular season along with Louisville and Georgetown before losing to Notre Dame in the second round of the conference tournament. The Golden Eagles, a No. 3 seed, barely eked their way into today’s Sweet 16 matchup with Miami, registering wins against No. 14 Davidson and No. 6 Butler by a combined three points.
This is the third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance by Marquette, but the school hasn’t reached the Elite Eight since 2003 when the team’s star was Dwyane Wade and the coach was Tom Crean, now at Indiana. Syracuse and Indiana will play tonight in the Verizon Center following the Miami-Marquette game with the winners facing off on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.
“I’ve had enough Sweet 16s, man, I want to get over the hump,” said Vander Blue, Marquette’s leading scorer with a 14.8-point average.