GAINESVILLE, Fla. - March Madness in the Sunshine State has long meant little to most people in Florida.
Sure, the Florida Gators have been an NCAA tournament staple during Coach Billy Donovan's tenure, which includes back-to-back national championships (2006-07).
Everywhere else in the football-frenzied state, though, the closest fans usually get to college basketball's biggest stage is taking part in office pools and watching bracket-busting games on television.
Oh, have things changed this week.
With second-seeded Miami, third-seeded Florida and darling Florida Gulf Coast advancing in the NCAA tournament, basketball has taken center stage
all across the peninsula. Throw in the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak, six shy of tying the NBA record set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, and hoops is the hottest thing going in Florida.
Spring football? Not now. Baseball spring training? Please. Even the beautiful beaches can't compete with what's happening on the hardwood.
"This time of year, so many people are captivated by the NCAA tournament," Donovan said yesterday. "Certainly, when you have three teams from the state of Florida still playing in the NCAA tournament and in the Sweet 16, I think it's certainly going to draw a lot of attention to basketball."
It's certainly a change, too.
Not only does Florida have three schools in the round of 16 for the first time, each program reached milestones in this NCAA tournament.
Miami, the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, earned its highest seeding in school history and made it to the round of 16 for the first time since 2000 and second time since joining Division I in 1985. The Hurricanes face third-seeded Marquette tomorrow in Washington, D.C.
Florida, the No. 3 seed in the South Regional, advanced to round of 16 for the third consecutive year – the first time that's happened in the program's 18 tournament appearances. The Gators play streaking Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night in Arlington, Texas.
And there's little left to say about Florida Gulf Coast, which became the first 15 seed to advance to the round of 16 in tournament history. The Eagles knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State in Philadelphia over the weekend to make history, capturing fans along the way with their up-tempo offense, alley-oop passes and high-flying dunks.
When FGCU players returned to class Monday, they were greeted by applause. Later that night, about 4,000 fans attended a pep rally inside the school's arena to celebrate the program's accomplishment.
Can the run really continue?
"We think we can compete with them," Coach Andy Enfield said. "If we play well, we'll have a chance to win the game."
Donovan agrees, saying FGCU shouldn't be considered "Cinderella" at this point.
"The country may give a team a label, but we never do that," Donovan said. "This is a really good team that has played exceptionally well, that is maybe playing as well as anyone in the country right now. The seeding and all that stuff, it doesn't mean anything. When the ball goes up in the air, you're playing against each other. This is a team that beat Miami, beat Georgetown, knocked off San Diego State. They went into their conference championship, basically on the road, and beat Mercer on their home court.
"You don't do those things unless you are really good."
With Florida, Florida State and Miami, the state enjoyed unparalleled football success for decades.
The Gators (1996, 2006 and 2008), Seminoles (1993 and 1999) and Hurricanes (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001) have combined for 10 national championships and nearly as many runner-up finishes. Adding in pockets of success by the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, and there's plenty of traction for the state's love affair with football.
Basketball, meanwhile, has always been a distant second even with the Heat and Gators winning titles.
Just not this week.
When Heat assistant coach Bob McAdoo called Florida a "basketball state," it caught former Florida player and current Heat forward Udonis Haslem off guard.
"I just kind of laughed it off," Haslem said. "But if you think about it right now, it's a good time to be a basketball fan and a basketball player in the state of Florida. It's all going really well."
Realistically, it won't last.
When the NCAA tournament ends, football in Florida will reclaim its front-and-center spot while basketball fades into the background for another year.
In the meantime, those guys on the hardwood can just enjoy the spotlight.
"I totally understand that football gets seen maybe in a different light with Miami, Florida State and Florida, South Florida," Donovan said. "But I think the one thing when you look at players that have come out, whether it be Kenny Boynton or Austin Rivers, there's been terrific players that have come out of this state. A lot of these rosters, whether it be our roster or Florida Gulf Coast or Miami, there's a lot of Florida kids."
"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 in the state of Florida."
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