UM's Larrañaga changes for the better

After 40 years, Coach L has Miami Hurricanes playing zone D

Throughout his career, Jim Larranaga's teams haven't exactly relied on the zone defense. Things are different this year with his young Miami Hurricanes.


At the start of each practice, University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larrañaga offers a thought of the day. Sometimes it's basketball related, like Monday, when Larrañaga discussed attacking the rim with his players to prepare for a physically imposing Florida State frontline.

Sometimes it's a bigger thought. Deeper. Larrañaga, for instance, has taught principles from motivational author Stephen Covey's, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."

"Habit No. 2, 'Begin with the end in mind,' is something we've stressed for work habits and going through the process to be a champion," Larrañaga said. "And it's something I've worked on."

Last spring, while beginning with this end in mind, Larrañaga asked his assistants to start studying zone defenses. That in itself was revealing. For 40 years, Larrañaga's teams played man-to-man defense. And only man-to-man.

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It's not that he had a zone-defense allergy. He simply had never used it. Early in his career, he convinced Davidson coach Terry Holland to try it. Davidson got crushed that night.

"That was the end of that," Larrañaga said.

But he saw Louisville win the national title last year with a frantic press that dropped back into a zone. He saw other teams, like Syracuse, using the zone effectively for years. He knew his team, depleted after a Sweet 16 run, was thin.

Perhaps the most interesting factor at work was Larrañaga himself, though. And change. It doesn't do this decision justice to simply ask how a tiger changes his stripes.

How does a highly successful, 63-year-old tiger change his stripes?

That's the bigger-than-basketball question here for anyone who has succeeded over a period of time following specific ideas. Do you change with your job requirements? Can you after habits are entrenched?

"Each year, there's a decision I make that I know that if it's a bad decision I'm going to have to learn to live with," Larrañaga said.

Last year, his decision was whether to keep Julian Gamble as starter when long-time star Reggie Johnson returned to health. He stayed with Gamble. That fueled the run to the ACC championship and Sweet 16.

"Very difficult decision," Larrañaga said. "Very tough on Reggie. But that was the best thing to do for that team."

This season, it was the defense. Players weren't helping teammates. Fundamentals were lost.

"We were giving up too many lay-ups," he said. "Something had to be done."

Larrañaga called Ralph Willard, a former Pitino assistant at Louisville who was living in Naples. He spent a day with Miami's coaches. Larrañaga ran into Boeheim's long-time assistant, Bernie Fine, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. He gave another lesson in zones.

In mid-season, Miami became a zone team.

"We played one or two minutes of man-to-man against LaSalle, but that was it," Rion Brown said of the Dec. 22 game.

For seniors like Brown and Eric Swoope, it took them back to Frank Haith's coaching as an all-zone team. For everyone else, including Larrañaga, it was a new world.

The early returns are good. Miami held then second-ranked Syracuse to 36.2 percent shooting in a close loss. It beat North Carolina by holding it to 30.8 percent shooting. Larrañaga is encouraged, but knows the ACC season is just starting.

It's mid-afternoon on Monday now, and Larrañaga is standing in a hallway, heading to practice. There's Florida State on Wednesday night to prepare for. There's a thought of the day about attacking the rim — "And not always to shoot," he says — to dispense to players.

Larrañaga will then end Monday by going with his players to the freshmen dorms to talk up the fun of attending on-campus games. Selling, he knew, was part of the job when he came to Coral Gables.

But fundamental change? At 63? That's something that surprised even him. Maybe it shouldn't. Necessary change, you see, can be seen as an eighth habit of highly effective people.