Sunshine great: Florida emerges as America’s hottest hoops state

03/26/2013 8:03 PM

03/26/2013 8:04 PM

By decree of the King, football-crazed Florida is now a basketball state.

The edict was issued late Sunday night, shortly after the Sunshine State placed three men’s basketball teams in the Sweet 16 round of this year’s NCAA Tournament. The official proclamation came via the Twitter feed of Miami Heat standout LeBron James (@KingJames), the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player and the state’s highest available authority on hoops.

In congratulating the three Florida schools that are a combined 6-0 in this year’s NCAA Tournament, James wrote: “Somebody told me Fla was a football state! Wouldn’t be able to tell right now. Congrats to The U (of course), Fla Golf (sic) Coast and UF!! #Hoops.”

Despite the typo in the King’s kudos for upstart Florida Gulf Coast, the message is clear: Fans throughout Florida are buzzing about the basketball success of Florida (28-7), Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) and Miami (29-6). Florida has more remaining teams in the NCAA title chase than any other state, although the field will be thinned Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

The David and Goliath of that trio, NCAA newbie Florida Gulf Coast and powerhouse Florida, will meet in a South Regional semifinal matchup at Cowboys Stadium to settle in-state bragging rights. At least in the mind of FGCU forward Eric McKnight.

“That is going to be a great deal,” McKnight told reporters after his team’s 81-71 victory over San Diego State in Philadelphia. “It’s going to be so much fun because we’ll have a chance to prove who’s the best in Florida.”

Asked which team that would be, McKnight responded: “FGCU.”

Miami players were quick to quibble with that assessment, making sure to point out that one of the Hurricanes’ top scorers, guard Durand Scott, did not play when FGCU took down Miami, 63-51, in a regular-season contest Nov. 13. In fact, Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji, a former Florida player, gives the edge to the Gators in Friday’s matchup because of the inside tandem of forward Erik Murphy (6-foot-10, 238 pounds) and center Patric Young (6-9, 249).

“I think it’s going to be close, but I’m going to have to go with Florida,” said Kadji, who transferred to Miami after his sophomore season. “They have better big men. Erik Murphy is a matchup nightmare. He can shoot the 3. He can get it done in the post. And Patric Young is so physical. I think the guards are pretty much the same. But I think Florida’s big men are a little too much.”

Kadji weighed in on the in-state showdown after the Hurricanes knocked off Illinois, 63-59, in Austin to punch their ticket to Thursday’s matchup against Marquette in the East Regional.

Although each of the three programs is uniquely different, with only Florida advancing past the Sweet 16 round in any previous NCAA Tournament, Miami point guard Shane Larkin said there is a shared pride in what the group has accomplished in shining a spotlight on the quality of high school basketball in a state known primarily for football players.

Sixteen players from Florida high schools or prep schools dot the rosters, including seven starters: three at Florida, two each at FGCU and Miami. Five of them are double-digit scorers, led by Larkin (14.6 average), a national player of the year candidate, and FGCU guard Sherwood Brown (15.6). Those two played for rival high schools in Orlando.

“The state of Florida has great basketball teams,” said Larkin, son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. “For us, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast to be in the Sweet 16 is a great feeling and it just proves that.”

Larkin said the presence of FGCU in the Sweet 16 in its first NCAA appearance helps soften the blow of a November loss when “a lot of people gave us grief” for falling to an under-the-radar opponent. Now, FGCU — which held its first classes in 1997 as a commuter school that offered an extensive collection of online courses — has emerged as America’s sentimental favorite after becoming the first No. 15 seed in tournament history to reach the Sweet 16.

The Eagles’ high-flying style of play has earned the team a nickname (Dunk City) and will make FGCU a fan favorite Friday night in Cowboys Stadium. Florida coach Billy Donovan, who led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2007, understands the potential mine field that awaits a power program headed to its third consecutive Sweet 16.

“This will be a great challenge for us,” Donovan said. “I think our guys have been smart enough and have been around enough to realize that when you line up and play in college basketball now, you’d better be ready to play.”

Without question, the brash, trash-talking Eagles — winners of the Atlantic Sun conference tournament — embrace Friday’s matchup, which will mark the school’s first meeting against the Gators.

Coach Andy Enfield wasted no time, in the wake of Sunday’s victory over San Diego State, to point out that he owns a 3-2 record in matchups against Florida from his days as a Florida State assistant before taking over the FGCU program.

“So we know they can be beaten,” Enfield said. “We’re going to Arlington to try to beat the Gators. … But we also have an unbelievable amount of respect for them. They have had the success that all of us want to have one day.”

On the flip side, Florida Gulf Coast is the only program in the state that never has lost an NCAA Tournament game. The Eagles’ career mark is only 2-0, but the confidence level is high.

“Dunk City is coming to Arlington, so everybody be ready,” said guard Bernard Thompson, who averages 14.5 points per game. “It’s just amazing … to reach the Sweet 16. We’re just playing high-intensity basketball, trying to prove that we’re just as good as any high major team.”

Brown, the Eagles’ leading scorer, said FGCU is doing something special this season and has no plans to abort its joy ride in Cowboys Stadium.

“We’ve been told that this is what college basketball is all about,” Brown said. “We’re really blessed and we’re really happy. … But we’ve still got a lot more games to play, hopefully. We’re going to get our heads back straight and get ready to play against Florida.”

Although he picks Florida to win Friday’s in-state showdown, Kadji said every player on the Miami roster picked FGCU to take down Georgetown, the No. 2 seed, in its opening matchup on their NCAA Tournament brackets. He also said the Hurricanes respect what the Eagles have achieved in reaching the Sweet 16. And Miami hopes to face Friday’s winner at the Final Four.

“That would be intense. It would be very good for the state of Florida,” Kadji said. “I hope it happens.”

Based on the early NCAA returns in America’s hottest hoops state, that seems very possible. Just check out the King’s decree.

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