Florida and Miami both tip-off today in NCAA Tournament play and both schools have a rich basketball tradition. Great historic players like Neal Walk (Florida) and Rick Barry (Miami) came through each program in the 1960s, but Miami actually dropped its program in 1971 only to revive it as an Independent in 1985, before becoming relevant by joining the Big East in 1991. This year both schools enter the tournament with high exceptions. Miami finished the year ranked #5 in the AP Poll and as dual ACC Champions the first school from outside the state of North Carolina to ever achieve this feat. Florida won the SEC Regular Season title and finished the year ranked #14, but having suffered serious injuries during the season and now healthy, one could argue Florida enters the tournament as one of the handful of favorites, if not the outright favorite to win another national title. Despite this, it is Miami that has been talked up as a favorite in this edition of the NCAAs.
Florida first qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 1987, fifteen full years after in-state rival Florida State had made the National Championship game, seventeen years after local rival Jacksonville University made the National Championship game, and twenty six years after Miami first made the big dance. But under Norm Sloan, the Gators made three successive tourney appearances, and won the SEC Regular Season Championship in 1989. But Sloan was fired amidst a major scandal and the Gators had to rebuild. My time as a student at UF coincided with the end of this rebuilding period as the Gators made the NIT in 1992 and 1993 and then the NCAA in 1994 and 1995 under Lon Kruger. The 1994 team made the Final Four and I as a student season ticket holder who preferred basketball to football was incredibly spirited and proud. However, in retrospect this was one of the worst teams to ever make an NCAA Final Four in my lifetime.
Further south, Miami was finding life in the Big East to be difficult. Going 0-18 in the league under Coach Leonard Hamilton in 1993-94 while Florida went to the Final Four meant the gap was as wide as could be between the two schools. However by the 1995-96 season, Miami was actually a better team having benefited from the largest single season turnaround in Big East history during the 1994-95 campaign. Miami made the NIT three straight years beginning that season while Florida fell on hard times and Lon Kruger left for Illinois. Jeremy Foley gambled on a young Head Coach from Marshall named Billy Donovan and as they say the rest is history. We’ll focus more on that in a minute.
Miami was emerging as a top Big East program and in 1998 they made the school’s first NCAA appearance since 1961. The next year the Canes became the only school EVER to defeat traditional powers St John’s, UConn, Syracuse and Georgetown in the same season away from home. Miami received a number two seed in the NCAA’s, but crashed out of the field in a major upset in the second round. The next season Hamilton’s team won the Big East Regular Season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 before being shocked by the Cinderella Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Sadly, Leonard Hamilton left for the NBA and Miami collapsed as a program after making the NCAAs in 2002. The Hurricanes soon after joined the most visible and prestigious basketball league in the country, the ACC and while competitive, and regularly making post-season (mostly the NIT) never reached the heights of the late 1990s until this season.
Florida made the Sweet 16 in 2009 under Donovan thanks to a rather fortunate draw, and in 2000 after a last second first round win versus Butler, went on tear including defeating Duke and North Carolina en route to making the NCAA National Championship game. That night the Gators lost to Michigan State but the thought was that the Gators would be back real soon.
But between 2001-2005 while Florida was consistently ranked in the Top 5 and made the NCAAs each and every season, the Gators developed the reputation as a soft underachieving team. Chances are if a big upset happened early in the NCAAs each of those years, the Gators were involved on the losing end. This made the Gators back-to-back National Championships in 2006 and 2007 all the more special.
The Gators entered the 2005-2006 season with diminished expectations, and were un-ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1998. But by Christmas the Gators had surged into the Top5. The SEC season was rougher than past campaigns including being swept by Tennessee, but the Gators never lost at home and then caught fire in the SEC Tournament and were never challenged en route to the school’s first national title.
The 2006-2007 season was the best in school history and seemed like the Gators were on cruise control. Other than the usual hiccup against Tennessee in Knoxville, the Gators despite having a target on their back all year ran roughshod over the college basketball world en route to another title.
Florida followed up the two national titles with three years of mediocrity, two of which ended in the NIT and one of which resulted in a questionable NCAA bid thanks to the weakness of the bubble that season. During this period, Florida State coached by Leonard Hamilton whose NBA foray had been unsuccessful emerged as the top program in the state, while Florida and Miami battled in the NIT. In fact the 2009 season for Miami ended at the O’Connell Center in an NIT game taking place at the very same time as FSU played Wisconsin in the NCAAs.
Bill Donovan never forgot how to recruit and the 2010-11 team marked a return to glory for Florida, despite the increased SEC competition from a revived Kentucky under John Calipari and Tennessee’s continued competitiveness. Florida has made the Elite 8 the past two seasons and with a healthy team, must be favored to get at least that far in this tournament.
Miami as noted above became the first ACC school outside the state of North Carolina to win both the ACC Regular Season and Tournament titles this year. They enter the tournament, justifiably as perhaps the second favorite (behind Louisville) after winning the toughest league in the nation, but perhaps given Miami’s historic postseason underachievement, caution should be exercised. Based on history we know Florida will advance either to same round or further than the Canes. Never when both schools have received an NCAA bid has Miami advanced further than the Gators.
don’t forget FSU WON last year’s ACC Championship!