CORAL GABLES, Fla.—The Miami Hurricanes held their version of Midnight Madness one recent evening at 8 p.m., inviting fans to watch practice at no charge and check out this season's team under new coach Jim Larranaga.
Why 8 p.m.?
"We were afraid if we did it at midnight, no one would show up," Larranaga said.
The former George Mason coach is under no illusions about the challenge he has accepted. Hurricanes basketball is a tough sell, even when it's free.
South Florida was flush with hoops fever a year ago, thanks to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, but the mania didn't spread to the Hurricanes. Their program, perennially overshadowed by professional sports, again finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in home attendance, averaging 4,763 fans.
Larranaga is intent on making college basketball in Miami more popular -- and successful.
"We can build a championship-caliber program here," he said.
Coach Frank Haith struggled in vain for seven seasons to develop a winner, and when he departed in April for Missouri, the Hurricanes came up with a surprising successor in Larranaga.
After 14 seasons at George Mason, the 62-year-old Larranaga said he decided to make the change because of the chance to coach in the ACC. Another lure was that three of Larranaga's siblings live in Florida.
"I think this is where he wanted to be," junior guard Durand Scott said. "It feels like he's home. This is the perfect place for him."
Larranaga led George Mason to five NCAA tournament berths, including an improbable run to the Final Four in 2006. He inherited considerable fan apathy when he took over that program, and helped double attendance.
Now he wants to fill up the Hurricanes' 7,200-seat on-campus arena. Larranaga figures his timing is good given the NBA labor dispute.
"Thanks to the excitement of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, here in Miami now there's tremendous interest in basketball," Larranaga said. "With the lockout, hopefully NBA fans will turn to the Miami Hurricanes to get their basketball fix."
That sounds good to Larranaga's players.
"I go to Publix down the street," senior swingman DeQuan Jones said, "and there's one guy who sees me every day and says, `You know, y'all are going to be our version of the Miami Heat until the lockout is over.' He's joking, but we take it seriously."
The Hurricanes went 43-69 in the ACC under Haith, but they're picked for a first-division finish this season. That's a reflection of Larranaga's reputation, because a year ago the Hurricanes were a disappointing 21-15 overall and 6-10 in the league. And their best player, center Reggie Johnson, is expected to be sidelined until January recovering from right knee surgery.
The Hurricanes do return their top scorers, guards Malcolm Grant (14.8 points per game) and Scott (13.6). Newcomers include redshirt sophomore center Kenny Kadji, a Florida Gators transfer, and freshman guard Shane Larkin, son of former All-Star shortstop Barry Larkin.
Also on the roster -- for now, at least -- is Jones, a part-time starter last season implicated in the athletic department scandal that prompted an NCAA investigation.
Larranaga said that he was unaware of the investigation when he became coach, and that the outcome is beyond his control.
"I'm focused on just practicing and not worrying about anything or discussing anything about the investigation," he said. "That's someone else's responsibilities."
Instead, he's intent on drumming up interest in his program. Larranaga said he and his staff send out daily emails to a thousand high school coaches to keep them informed about the Hurricanes. In recent months, the Miami staff held a free clinic for prep coaches, a four-week camp for youngsters, another camp for elite prep players and a senior league for players 35 and older.
On Sunday afternoons, Hurricanes players have begun coaching kids in kindergarten through sixth grade.
"We're hoping those youngsters will be become fans of our program and encourage their parents to bring them to games," Larranaga said. "We're hoping their parents will then bring their friends, and we'll build a grass-roots network of fans."
It'll take time. There was only a modest turnout at Midnight Madness -- or rather 8 p.m. Madness. Larranaga joked that the largest crowd he has seen in the team's arena was for the Latin Music Awards.
"People here come to see our opponents when North Carolina and Duke are in town," he said. "But you want people to come watch you."