Sunshine statement in basketball
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 12:02 a.m.
ARLINGTON, Texas — For a weekend, at least, the state of Florida has become a talking point in college basketball.
At Cowboys Stadium
Kansas (31-5) vs. Michigan (28-7), 7:37 on TBS
Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) vs. Florida (28-7), 9:57 p.m. on TBS
Three teams from the Sunshine State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in NCAA Tournament history. Two will face each other Friday night, when third-seeded Florida plays 15-seed upstart Florida Gulf Coast University at cavernous Cowboys Stadium. Miami, meanwhile, will take on Marquette tonight in just its second Sweet 16 appearance in school history.
A population explosion and millions of dollars poured into coaching and facilities have helped college basketball programs in the state develop. But it wasn't always that way.
Former Miami All-American Rick Barry, who played with the Hurricanes from 1962-65, recalled practicing at an armory off campus.
“The trucks used to drive across the court,” Barry said. “We played our home games at the Miami Beach Convention Center and at (Miami) Dade Community College. Could you imagine that? A major college program playing at a community college gym.”
Barry was the state's first college basketball superstar, a smooth-shooting, 6-foot-7 wing player who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the ABA and NBA. An Elizabeth, N.J., native, Barry said he chose Miami over more tradition-rich programs to get out of the cold and play across the country.
“As the programs in the state continue to show they can have success, I think the weather will continue to be a big selling point,” Barry said. “Those kids in the Northeast and Midwest realize that they can come down here and be part of teams that win championships.”
The Florida Gators had some success in the late 1960s behind big man Neal Walk, who was taken second overall in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns. But team success was more difficult for programs in the state to achieve. Jacksonville was the first team to make the Final Four in 1970, followed by a Final Four appearance by Florida State in 1972.
Florida didn't play in a Final Four until 1994, when Lon Kruger led the unheralded third-seeded Gators to upsets over Big East powers Connecticut and Boston College at Miami Arena before eventually falling to Duke.
And then came Florida coach Billy Donovan. Hired a month shy of his 31st birthday in 1996, Donovan has led the Gators to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances in 17 seasons, the longest sustained string of success of any college basketball program in the state. The breakthrough came in 2006, when Florida became the first school within the state to win a national title.
Donovan followed that up by leading the Gators to another national championship in 2007. After three years of rebuilding, Donovan has led Florida to three straight Sweet 16 appearances.
During his 17 years at Florida, Donovan said he's witnessed the talent level within the state evolve at the high school and grassroots level.
“I've always said Florida is a great state as it relates to basketball,” Donovan said. “I totally understand that football recruiting gets seen maybe in a different light with Miami, Florida State and Florida, South Florida. But I think the one thing when you look at players that have come out, whether it be a Kenny Boynton or Austin Rivers, there's been terrific players that have come out of this state, Udonis Haslem, Brent Wright that we had, kids that have really played well.”
Of the 37 players on the rosters of Miami, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, 15 are from the state of Florida. Two more (Miami's Kenny Kadji and Florida's Will Yeguete) traveled from overseas to play high school basketball at boarding schools within the state. Yeguete spent two years at Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, while Kadji played at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
“I think a lot of these rosters whether it be our roster or Florida Gulf Coast or Miami, there's a lot of Florida kids,” Donovan said. “You look at a guy like (Miami point guard) Shane Larkin coming out of Orlando and the year he's had. I think this is a very, very good state as it relates to basketball at the high school level and I think this state is very fortunate that we have a lot of really, really good high school coaches.”
Larkin, the son of Major League Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, remembered the reaction when Florida Gulf Coast upset the Hurricanes last November.
“A lot of people gave us grief for that,” Larkin said. “But now it's just showing that they're a great team and for everybody who said that we weren't a great team because they beat us, they're showing how great of a team they are. So, just for us, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast to be in the Sweet 16, it's just a great feeling and it just proves that Florida has great basketball teams, just like everybody else in the country.”
ESPN national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said high school basketball talent in the state of Florida has been “steadily on the rise” in the last 20 years. He pointed to Chandler Parsons, Joey Rodriguez and Nick Calathes playing on the same high school team outside Orlando as an example. Parsons is now starting for the Houston Rockets, while Rodriguez led VCU to a Final Four and Calathes is enjoying success playing in Russia.
Florida's population has expanded from five million in the 1960s to more than 19 million, according to 2012 U.S. Census figures.
“It seems to be a big producer, just because of the sheer numbers and demographics,” Telep said. “Teams are well-funded at the high school and grassroots level. And I also think Florida winning the two national championships, it told kids that were 10 or 15 years old, it's OK to play basketball.”
Though football overshadows basketball in the state for publicity, its popularity has helped bring in money needed for new facilities and to pay market value for elite coaches. Florida built an $11 million, state-of-the-art basketball practice facility in 2001, which attracted recruits such as Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer. Miami spent $48 million to build an on-campus arena in 2003 after playing a number of years off campus downtown.
Miami moved into the Big East in 1991 and joined the ACC in 2002, further enhancing its basketball credibility. In 2011, after Frank Haith left for Missouri, Miami took a chance on 61-year-old coach Jim Larranaga, who had led George Mason to a Final Four in 2006. This season, with a roster that includes six seniors and four juniors, Larranaga guided the Hurricanes to their first ACC regular-season title and first ACC Tournament title.
“We had a lot of pieces in place, and then by adding Shane Larkin and Tonye Jekiri, it kind of gave us all the ingredients we needed to go on a run this year,” Larranaga said.
Spring football games are around the corner, but for this weekend, basketball will take center stage.
“It shows that Florida is more than a football state,” Barry said.
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.