MIAMI — The route Shane Larkin took to get to the University of Miami wasn’t the most direct one, but from the moment he began mapping out all of his college options, every dot was strategic.
Growing up in Orlando, where the sun rarely took a day off, climate was his main consideration.
DePaul was 1,160 miles away in Chicago, and coach Oliver Purnell was trying to rebuild a program, hopefully with Larkin as the centerpiece.
George Mason was more than 800 miles up I-95. The Patriots were only four years removed from a Final Four run that made them the darlings of college basketball, and coach Jim Larranaga had a way with forging strong relationships with his players.
Colorado, nearly 2,000 miles away, was also on his list. The closest school he considered was Florida State.
By no means was he trying to get out of the shadow of his father, Barry, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer who turned Larkin into a brand name for quality at the shortstop position.
He just wanted to get out of the sun.
Which is why it made sense that he gave Boston College a hard look, as well, from 1,300 miles away.
“Living in Orlando, it was always hot,” Larkin said. “I wanted to to somewhere where it was actually cold.”
The Eagles coaching staff was well aware of Larkin’s credentials as both a binge scorer on one end of the floor and a serial pickpocket at the other. Before Joe Jones left BC to become head coach at Boston University, he tried his hardest to get Larkin to come to Heights. Head coach Steve Donahue spent time with Larkin’s parents. Larkin made an official visit to Chestnut Hill with Alex Murphy the fall of 2010.
“It was cold,” Larkin said. “But I don’t think it snowed.”
If Larkin was leaning anywhere, it was toward Larranaga and George Mason, but he had so many options that Larranaga couldn’t afford to wait for Larkin to make a call.
Larranaga signed another point guard, Corey Edwards. Larkin settled on DePaul but never played a game there.
For all his desire to switch scenery, an undisclosed medical condition required him to leave DePaul just before the start of his freshman year and scramble to look for schools closer to home.
It was coincidence that Larranaga had taken the job as Miami’s head coach three months earlier. They hadn’t talked since the day after Larkin visited George Mason.
“It just so happened he had a scholarship available, and I was looking for a school to come closer to home to,” Larkin said. “It just worked out for the best.”
Now, the sophomore guard is arguably the key piece to a 17-3 Miami team that’s off to an 8-0 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the best start by any team besides Duke or North Carolina since 1981).
Boston College (10-11, 2-6) faces the Hurricanes Tuesday night at the BankUnited Center.
Larkin had an 18-point, five-assist performance in a stunning 90-63 rout of Duke on Jan. 23 that helped the Hurricanes shoot up to No. 14 from No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.
Coming off a 25-point effort at Virginia Tech and a 13-point, 5-assist, 5-steal game at North Carolina State, the ACC’s preseason favorite, Larkin was tapped as the conference player of the week. The wins also shot Miami up to No. 8, a height the program hadn’t seen since 1960.
And for all the deliberating that went into deciding on a school, his pick couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
“It didn’t work out [at BC], but it’s obviously worked out well for Shane,” Donahue said. “He’s got a great situation. I just told our guys, I think he’s the key to their team. I don’t think they necessarily had a point guard last year that really got everybody involved and Shane wasn’t really ready for that.
“But right now, if you make any mistake on him, everybody else is so dangerous and that’s what happens. He drives it, he kicks it, you go under a ball screen he hits it. What other things he does, he creates so much on the defensive end, getting steals and easy baskets. Just real impressed with his development and confidence. I think he’s ideal for that team. It’s worked out for him.”
Larkin had other options close by. South Florida had shown the most interest, but the relationship he had built with Larranaga early in the recruiting process was important.
“I think just sometimes you connect with a young man or a family,” Larranaga said. “They feel like they know you. They listen to your approach to coaching, and they listen to how you develop your players and your program. In Shane’s case, probably the biggest thing was he is very, very close to his mom and dad, and when he went to DePaul, he was very far away from home. And I think he was just uncomfortable with that.
“Coming back then, trying to decide, OK, where should I go, coming back to Florida, he had familiarity with us. He might have looked at a couple of other schools in the state, but I think we were probably the one he was most interested in. It kind of just worked out for both of us, I think. It’s a great fit for him and definitely a great fit for us.”
So far, it’s been the kind of season that no one outside of the Hurricanes’ locker room saw coming. They fell short of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, in Larranaga’s first season, but brought back a veteran team that took a Tournament-or-bust attitude toward this year.
Larkin said he could see how much Larranaga was investing in the program.
“I knew Coach L was a great motivator,” said Larkin, who had 7 points and five assists in Miami’s 60-59 win at BC on Jan. 16. “He’s like a politician. On campus, he’s always recruiting people to come to games. He’s doing everything he needs to do, going out there giving speeches in dorms or going to community service events just trying to get people to come to games.”
Perched atop the conference, with signature wins already under their belt, Larranaga said, the last thing he wants is for the Hurricanes to become complacent.
“We want to enjoy the journey, but we also want to stay focused on our next opponent,” Larranaga said. “And that’s what the guys have been able to do. If you win a game, enjoy that, celebrate that for a short while, but the very next day, you’re back to the office doing your job.”
But there’s an energy around the program that it hasn’t experienced in years.
When the team bus rolled back to campus after beating North Carolina State, there was a crowd there to greet them. At restaurants, he’ll get the better tables. More than that, when the waiters get there, he’s starting to get top billing over his dad.
“I’m used to everyone being like, ‘Hi, Barry! Oh, and is your son doing well at the university?’
“We beat Duke and it was, ‘Aw, Shane, you’re a great player, can we get your autograph. Oh, Barry? You’re a great player, too. No disrespect.’
“That’s just a great feeling knowing people are taking notice.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.