Six weeks ago, when the University of Miami's basketball success was still a novelty, North Carolina coach Roy Williams assessed the damage after a 26-point loss against the Hurricanes. “How good is Miami?” Williams was asked. “I think they have the whole package,” he said. “I know they lost to Florida Gulf Coast. I'd hate to hell to have to play Florida Gulf Coast.” It was a throwaway line, one that generated some chuckles.
Nobody is laughing now. No.?2-seeded Miami (29-6), a legitimate contender for the national championship, faces Marquette (25-8) in tonight's East Region semifinals at Washington. Meanwhile, the No.?15 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (26-10), now America's darlings, face the No.?3 Florida Gators (28-7) in Friday night's South Region semifinals in the expansive environment of Cowboys Stadium at Arlington, Texas. College basketball in Florida? How Sweet (16) it is! “What an unbelievable story,” said ESPN's Dick Vitale, a Lakewood Ranch resident. “It has been a crazy, wacky season, but Miami has been consistently good. Florida is a powerhouse. And Florida Gulf Coast is absolutely playing without fear. It really is a great thing for this state.'' Who saw it coming back on Nov. 13? Before the program's first home sellout (4,552 fans), FGCU upset Miami 63-51. “A lot of people gave us grief for that,'' Hurricanes sophomore guard Shane Larkin said. “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.” UM coach Jim Larranaga said it's an example of “not only a lot of good college basketball being played in the state, but a lot of good high-school basketball being played in the state.” He praised FGCU, saying Eagles coach Andy Enfield has “done a fantastic job of bringing in players, many of whom went below the radar screen.'' There are, of course, major differences between the three programs. If FGCU's run ends Friday night, as most people expect, it's still one of the best stories in NCAA tournament history. If UM falls tonight against Marquette, it's still a memorable season that saw the Hurricanes reach No.?2 nationally, win the ACC tournament and likely assure national coach of the year accolades for Larranaga. Anything short of the Final Four will be disappointing for the Gators, who were beaten in two straight region finals. But Florida coach Billy Donovan, who won back-to-back national titles with the Gators in 2006 and 2007, isn't concentrating on the big picture right now. Survive and advance? It's still true. “I think it's really hard to get out of the first weekend,'' Donovan said. “It just is. There are so many good teams. The parity of college basketball certainly is a lot different than it was 25 years ago. I think that's what makes this tournament so special.'' In Donovan's 13 NCAA tournaments with the Gators, he experienced the beginning of Gonzaga (1999 West Region semifinal loss). He faced Butler and George Mason (coached by Larranaga). FGCU might be the biggest Cinderella of all. “Hopefully by now people are learning those initials,'' said Enfield, whose team won the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament to capture an automatic NCAA bid. “When we came into this tournament, we knew no one knew who we were or where we were. Most of the people don't even know where Fort Myers or Southwest Florida is. “I told our players before the Georgetown game (in the second round), you earned the right to be here by winning your conference championship. All you can do is play your best and play hard. If you're good enough to win the game, you will. We said the same thing (against San Diego State in the third round). We're going to play our game and we'll see what happens.” Enfield, a former Florida State assistant coach with Leonard Hamilton, said he recruited some of UF's players while working for the Seminoles. He also pointed out that “I believe I'm 3-2 against the Gators as an assistant coach.” Anything can happen. Anything already has happened. So how about this? The Final Four in Atlanta: Miami gets its rematch with FGCU in the national semifinals. Or Florida vs. Miami for a spot in the national-title game. In Florida, the state of state hoops never has been more promising.