Jim Larrañaga wrapped up his tenth season at the University of Miami by recording win No. 200 with the program. He coached a depleted Hurricanes roster to the ACC tournament quarterfinals, despite being the No. 13 seed.
It was quite the way to close the season, making conference history when the odds were against them. However, that doesn’t cut him any slack in the eyes of many.
After a 10-17 campaign, marking UM’s third consecutive losing season, and one that featured the worst record in program history since 1993-94, the feeling of dissatisfaction is trending, and calls to wave the towel on Larranaga are more obnoxious than ever.
Their case is that since 2018, Miami has missed their opportunity to garner an NCAA Tournament bid, for a variety of reasons. One of those: the lack of scholarship players on the roster. UM has struggled to fill the 13-man roster with active guys, which has forced them to rely on walk-ons on multiple occasions. And after losing their entire 2020 recruiting class via the transfer portal – Earl Timberlake and Matt Cross – while having eight seniors graduating, that issue continues to worsen.
If the ‘Canes don’t use the portal to the best of their abilities, they could be in the same situation, if not worse, with fatigue and a lack of depth come the 2021-22 season.
Along those lines, there’re concerns about UM’s ability to compete in the later months of a season, considering that for the past three years, they’ve tumbled in the conference standings by January or February despite a hot start in November. Since 2019, their highest winning streak in February has been three games, unacceptable for any team looking to compete amongst the nation’s best.
Although many of the critic’s calls for Larranaga’s job tend towards the good of the program and its future, the expectations given are far too unrealistic. Could UM look into partying ways with the 72-year-old if these circumstances become a theme? Yes. But for now, I don’t see a legitimate reason as to letting go of the most decorated coach to have filled up seats at the Watsco Center.
1. Injuries, injuries, injuries.
It’s true, that excuse is getting old.
We heard it in 2018 when Bruce Brown (left foot) missed the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, where UM fell to Loyola Chicago in dramatic fashion. Then in 2019-20, with Keith Stone (knee) and Deng Gak (meniscus) dealing with injuries for the early part of the season, followed by Kameron McGusty (back) and Chris Lykes (nose/eye) as tournament play approached.
Again, in 2020-21, the injury bug struck, taking out a portion of Miami’s scholarship players and ultimate goals coming into the season. UM had nine players combine to miss 113 games, including Sam Waardenburg (27), Lykes (25), Earl Timberlake (20), Rodney Miller Jr. (22), Harlond Beverly (8) and McGusty (7).
As repetitive of a statement as it’s become, it’s the harsh reality.
Put yourself in Larranaga’s shoes: after developing a game plan that revolved around Lykes – a senior guard who has led UM in scoring the past two years – his injury abruptly forced them to adapt without his scoring presence. That said, it forced sophomore Isaiah Wong to step up and attempt to keep those early expectations rolling. However, those 25 games without Lykes were a learning curve for Wong and his teammates, who rarely found a groove because of injuries and that sudden change to their style of play.
And with COVID-19 also taking a mental and physical toll on these young adults, along with the coaching staff, how much blame really is on Larranaga’s shoulders?
After all, Larranaga, who has the second-most wins in program history, has the support of his locker room, and has tried to keep his players engaged and motivated during this tough stretch.
“[Coach] tells me to play my game and try to have fun,” Wong told 305 Sports in early March. “He showed me one time the progress from last season to this season and what big improvements I had. I know he talks well on my name.”
2. Larranaga’s consistently constructing professional athletes.
Since arriving in Coral Gables in 2011, Larranaga has sent eight UM alumnus to the NBA, 53 percent of the total 15 in school history. He’s also sent a plethora of his guys to play overseas, the most recent example being former captain Dejan Vasiljevic, who’s now shining with the Sydney Kings of the NBL.
That said, Larranaga’s unparalleled in the sense that he puts his players in the right positions after departing, both on and off the court. Although the focal point for coaches should be to win games, it’s also to care about the guys in the program, and he does a respectable job doing so.
If it weren’t for injuries throughout the course of the season, Timberlake, a four-star prospect out of high school, could’ve lived up to his one-and-done expectations. While Lykes, who’s been at Miami for four years, could’ve boosted his stock to the late-second round. Regardless, the 5-foot-7 guard has a guaranteed sweepstakes to the G-League.
Replacing someone like Larranaga, who has connections everywhere in the basketball world, will be hard to replace and is too much of a gamble for the ‘Canes to make.
3. Every school goes through a rough patch. Give it time.
In a year that Duke and Kentucky miss out on participating in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1976, anything could happen.
Is a difficult three year span really enough to force a restart to UM men’s basketball and the culture it’s embodied since Larranaga arrived? No. Unless the 35-year collegiate coach chooses to call it a quits, something he’s denied for the past two seasons, there shouldn’t be an urge to move in a different direction at Miami.
Things can still be bright in Coral Gables. They’ll have three highly-rated recruits in Bensley Joseph, Nisine Poplar and Jakai Robinson coming to campus in the fall, with Wong, 20, back for his junior campaign. Additionally, UM awaits the decision of their seniors, who, if healthy, would’ve been the x-factor to a successful run in ACC play.
That shouldn’t hide the fact that Larranaga’s team has work to do. The Hurricanes ranked dead-last in the ACC in 3-PT% this season and were thirteenth in points per game at 66.5. Miami spent the season revolving its offense around Wong, and as time went on, it became obvious for opposing teams, who were able to breach UM’s game plan by playing a zone defense that forced UM into shots from beyond the arc. Larranaga also seemed to have misused Nysier Brooks on the scoring end, show his ability to attack the glass in his final four games, where he put up 14.5 PPG, contrary to his season average of 7.4.
This year wasn’t a pretty representation of what a Larranaga-led team is bound to accomplish. If it stays that way, his time in Miami will soon come to an end. But for the time being, coach L is here to stay.