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Florida isn't a basketball state, says no one in Boca Raton and Coral Gables

Miami men's basketball players use their hands to show the school's "U" symbol while celebrating its win against Texas in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.
Charlie Riedel
/
AP
Miami men's basketball players use their hands to show the school's "U" symbol while celebrating its win against Texas in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

It's possible the men's national title game could match South Florida's Miami and FAU, which make up half of Final Four field after big wins this past weekend.

Florida’s reputation as a college football state is getting significant competition these days. Just take a gander east of the Everglades, where you’ll find half of this weekend’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Four.

Florida Atlantic University and the University of Miami have been dancing for a month, upsetting a throng of bracket sheets en route to Houston’s NRG Stadium and Saturday's national semifinals.

FAU will meet another surprising entry, San Diego State University, at 6:09 p.m., while Miami will play Connecticut at approximately 8:49 p.m. Wins by the Owls and Hurricanes would set up an all-South Florida championship game Monday night.

Jordan Miller scored 27 points and made a series of crucial foul shots down the stretch as the Hurricanes beat second-seeded Texas 88-81 in the Midwest Region final Sunday. Along with Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack, Miller rallied the Hurricanes from a 13-point second-half deficit.

“We just all bought into staying together, keeping that hope alive,” Miller said after the win in Kansas City, “and the way we just willed this one through, I think everybody played really well, and I think it really shows the poise of this squad.”

A day earlier at Madison Square Garden, FAU brushed off a deficit in the final eight minutes to upset Kansas State 79-76. No. 3 seed K-State was led by former University of Florida star Markquis Nowell, who transferred this season two years after collapsing during a game.

Have one state school in the Final Four is rare enough. But two? It’s only happened three times over the past 30 years: North Carolina last year (University of North Carolina and Duke University) and Kentucky in 2012 (universities of Kentucky and Louisville).

That’s Tobacco Road and Bluegrass. But the Sunshine State?

The Final Four has welcomed only three schools from the land of gridirons, and one of them was UF, a five-time qualifier that cut down the national nets in 2006 and 2007. The others: Jacksonville University in 1970 and Florida State University in 1972. Both lost to the UCLA dynasty in the national final. The tournament had only 25 teams then, less than half of the current field of 68.

Florida Atlantic’s men’s program even didn’t exist.

"I expect the prognosticators to pick us fifth in the Final Four,” fifth-year FAU coach Dusty May said.

Florida Atlantic players celebrate after defeating Kansas State on Saturday, March 25, 2023, in New York.
Frank Franklin II
/
AP
Florida Atlantic players celebrate after defeating Kansas State on Saturday, March 25, 2023, in New York.

In one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments ever — all four No. 1 seeds were out by the Elite Eight — the Owls from Conference USA typify the madness.

“Honestly, all the things people say just fuels us to go out there and play even harder,” said FAU’s Bryan Greenlee. “They can say whatever they want, say we're a Cinderella team, say we don't belong, but we've constantly proven people wrong all season.”

FAU (at 35-3, the most wins in the country) is a No. 9 seed. There are two 5-seeds in UM (29-7) and San Diego State (30-2), and a 4-seed in UConn (29-8).

“You just love when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga said.

If the unfamiliar names — to say nothing of the seedings — are any indication, fans might look back on the season when true parity finally sunk deep into the bones of America's favorite basketball tournament and turned March Madness into a free-for-all.

But all the other factors upending college sports — namely, NIL deals and the transfer portal — played a role, too. Over the past two years, the NCAA has allowed players to monetize their names, images and likenesses. It's become a huge recruiting tool at many schools after years of limiting student-athletes to scholarships and stipends.

Larrañaga said the portal was the basketball equivalent of speed dating. Worked for him. The third- and fourth-leading scorers for the Hurricanes, Pack and Norchad Omier, came to Coral Gables from the portal.

Up I-95, FAU got three key players, including 7-foot-1 Russian center Vladislav Goldin, from elsewhere. All moved to the campus in Boca Raton after less-than-successful stays at big-conference schools. No one was quite sure how May would blend all these new faces from different places. Turns out, he did pretty well.

“We already had a good chemistry last year, and the pieces that we added just complemented everything we had going on,” said Greenlee, in his second year at FAU after coming over from Minnesota.

 Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.