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Luke DeCock: Jim Larranaga, one of the last of the ACC’s living legends, enjoying Final Four moment

HOUSTON — In the 17 years that passed between Final Four appearances for Jim Larranaga, he changed schools (from George Mason to Miami), became a worse dancer (according to his players and his own self-appraisal), and lost none of the love for coaching he absorbed from Terry Holland.

In the 12 months since Miami last made a deep run in March, Larranaga has also emerged as the ACC’s elder statesman and de facto spokesman, continuing to coach as Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim retired and Mike Brey moved on.

“I just feel anybody associated with the ACC should be blowing our horn, because I’ve been disappointed the last two years we’ve only got five teams in,” Larranaga said Thursday. “Because I’ve had to compete against those coaches and teams and know how good they are.”

A league that for so many years was defined by the excellence and accomplishments of its coaches — from Everett Case and Frank McGuire to Dean Smith to the generation that’s moving on now — has undergone an extraordinary degree of transition since 2021.

Larranaga, a New Yorker living in Miami — “This city is paradise! It’s 75 degrees every day!” — and a Cuban who doesn’t speak Spanish with deep ties to the ACC, is really the last coach standing, not only ready but eager to take the stand on behalf of the ACC like so many of his recently departed predecessors.

“He’s been handed the baton from Coach Williams two years ago, Coach Krzyzewski last year, and now Coach Boeheim,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. “I don’t think there’s any question he understands the responsibility he has, not only to Miami, but the ACC and college basketball. And he’s done it beautifully this year and continues to be the gold standard in coaching.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the ACC has had at least one Naismith Hall of Famer coaching in basketball since 1946, when Case started at N.C. State, until March 8, when Boeheim officially retired at Syracuse. Even considering only sitting Hall of Fame coaches, there has been one active in all but three seasons since Smith was inducted in 1983 — with a short gap from his retirement until Krzyzewski’s induction in 2001.

The existing gap could also still be closed, since Larranaga and Leonard Hamilton were both among this year’s nominees, although neither was a finalist. (You can hear Josh Pastner screaming “They should both be in the Hall of Fame!” from here.) But even if it is, there’s no telling how much time either has left on the job. Larranaga is 73. Hamilton is 74. It can’t be that long before they follow their peers into retirement, although Larranaga doesn’t intend to go quietly.

“I might be 73 years old, but I think age is just a number,” Larranaga said. “I just love doing what I’m doing. I love coaching basketball. I’ve done it for 51 years. And I hope to do it a lot longer. And what makes it so enjoyable are the players.”

So this has very much become a time of leadership change in the ACC, albeit not an unforeseen one — Williams was the first domino to fall, and everyone knew he would not be the last — with no clear standard-bearer among the next generation.

Brey is gone, Tony Bennett has a title but no desire to seek the spotlight, Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis are still in their coaching infancies and once Larranaga and Hamilton are gone that leaves a very small group of contenders to be the primary spokesman for ACC basketball in the way that Krzyzewski and Williams were, and Smith was before them.

At the moment, thanks to his ACC roots as a Holland assistant at Virginia, Miami’s recent success and the kind of personality that allows him to embrace rather than endure the ritual NCAA press conference, not to mention he’s two wins away from a national title of his own, Larranaga stands alone.

“What I’m excited about is he has indicated he’s going to be around for the next three or four years, which will be terrific for our new coaches, and some of our younger and less experienced coaches,” Phillips said. “I’m grateful to have Coach Larranaga in this role and to have the success that they’re having right now at Miami and last year couldn’t come at a better time for the ACC now and into the future.”

All this at a time, underlined by the conference’s relief that Miami has emerged to carry its flag this year, when the perception of ACC basketball has never been lower. Some of that is based in fact: The ACC has lost nonconference games the past two seasons it never used to lose. But Miami’s run to Houston also continued a two-year run of postseason success, 10 bids delivering a total of 21 (and counting) wins, that suggests the narrative that the ACC is better than the metrics would indicate isn’t completely off base.

That’s the pitch Phillips has made this spring as he has turned more of his attention to basketball. Since taking over the league in 2021, Phillips has been heavily focused on football, which has become the primary driver of revenue and growth in college athletics, at times to the exclusion of all other considerations. But the ACC’s unique circumstances in basketball — for a league that’s often been able to leave hoops on autopilot — now demand his attention.

As a former member of the men’s basketball committee, his term cut short when he left Northwestern to become ACC commissioner, Phillips understands the basics of the selection process. But he also argues that certain aspects of the process haven’t fully captured the ACC’s strength, and that the ACC needs to do a better job of selling its basketball brand not only to the press and public but the selection committee itself.

It’s the kind of thing Krzyzewski used to espouse from the bully pulpit of the NCAA tournament lectern, and Larranaga did last year and again this spring. Soon, Phillips might be the only ACC stakeholder with the standing to make that argument, but for now Larranaga has risen to the occasion.

Miami head coach Jim Larranaga talks with students Tuesday, March 21, 2023, during a break in preparing for his team's Sweet 16 game in the NCAA Tournament. (South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Miami head coach Jim Larranaga talks with students Tuesday, March 21, 2023, during a break in preparing for his team’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA Tournament. (South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

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