OK, the attention GMU's great basketball run to the Final Four has been utilized by several of us (and me in particular) to highlight certain similarities with our economics department and our law school in the efforts to compete with more 'prestigious' programs (I said 'prestigious' because I have always loved a line supposedly attributed to Vernon Smith when he moved to Arizona—he was reportedly asked how he could move their since it wasn't a top ranked department and he responded: "Any department that would hire me is by definition a top department." I've never asked Vernon if this story is true or not, but I love it nevertheless). But I feel compelled to say something before tip-off on Saturday night. It is a simple point and one that seems to be getting recognized internationally now, but should be said again and again: Coach Larranaga is outstanding and his teams play the game the way it should be played!
My love of the game of basketball far exceeded my ability to play the game. But I have had a passion for the game since I was in elementary school in NJ. I've loved playing basketball and I've enjoyed teaching it to young players for years—starting when I worked as a counselor at clinics, my HS coach ran for elementary and middle school kids, then at Lehigh Valley Basketball Camp, years of coaching CYO and recreation basketball, and more recently with the Fairfax Stars AAU basketball organization.
I watch hundreds of basketball games during a year: youth games, high school games, college games, European league games, NBDL games, and NBA games. Coach Larranaga's teams over these past 9 years (I moved to GMU in 1998 and have been a season ticket holder starting that season) play some of the most enjoyable basketball to watch for a basketball fan. He has his players play tough defense—the scramble—a defense predicated on pressuring the ball, trapping either the first pass or the dribbler, anticipating and rotating, and rebound and running. He plays 10 players a game, which means his bench is always into the game. He has the players spread the court: "spacing is offense and offense is spacing" as Hubie Brown has taught generations of coaches. They play team ball and are mentally tough. George Evans, the star of the late 1990s teams, was a great college basketball player. Keith Holden, a role player on those Evans' teams, was as fundamentally sound as any player you could watch. During his tenure at GMU, Coach Larranaga's teams have gone to the NCAA three times and deep in the NIT.
The current team of players has been a joy to watch for several years—Lamar Butler is a fifth year senior (he was injured and red-shirted) and his ability to shoot and stretch out the opponents defense was evident from his first year. And Jai Lewis has made his presences felt as soon as he put on a GMU uniform. GMU plays the game inside-out and Butler and Lewin worked the two-man game against UConn as well as any college duo.
The bottom line: Coaches Coach, Players Play, Fans Cheer, and Academics Study. Coach Larranaga is an excellent coach, he has players that believe in a system and work hard to compete, and he has seniors who have refused to be rattled or overcome by the situation.
I will continue to study the game from the unique perspective of economics, as well as following the latest coaching tips in publications such as Winning Hoops, but the real game is down on the floor, and the real professor of hoops is Jim Larranaga. But I do take great pleasure in the fact that Coach Larranaga was a economics major at Providence College. Assistant Coach Chris Caputo was also an economics and finance major at Westfield College. Perhaps the link between basketball and economics is as tight as I have been suggesting!