Rivalry with Connecticut helped Miami Basketball become relevant

Editors Note: We are not ignoring FAU being in the Final Four. We will discuss them later in the week.

Miami faces UConn in the NCAA Men’s Final Four from Houston this Saturday – it’s Miami’s first trip to the Final Four, as our readers surly know, but I would argue Miami Basketball becoming relevant at all as a national program happened in the 1990’s thanks to timely games against Connecticut. So, Saturday’s matchup is a rivalry renewed. It’s also potential payback for the state of Florida, as Billy Donovan’s best ever Florida team (IMO) got beat in an upset by Connecticut (UConn) at the 2014 Final Four, denying Florida a third title and that 13-14 team, a potential case as the best team, ever.

The rise of Miami basketball from obscurity and playing in a convention center to ACC powerhouse runs through the now demolished-Miami Arena and the Big East of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. And it was in that period, when UConn was the dominant power in that league and emerging as the preeminent national program outside of maybe Duke and Kansas (and it is a maybe).

Early 1990’s

In the early 1990’s southern Florida was a college basketball backwater. Miami had arguably the worst program in a power conference and FAU and FIU toiled in the obscurity of the TAAC, then lowest rated conference by RPI in the country. Thirty years later, Miami and FAU are both in a Final Four, making the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach MSA, the second metro area after Durham-Chapel Hill to boast two Final Four teams at the same time, in the modern era (since the tournament expanded to 64 teams).


In the 1998-99 season, Miami was coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1960 ( the program was dormant from 1971 to 1985) but had barely registered a blip locally. Only die-hards, like myself, were interested, having become hooked on the sport when I had been a student at the University of Florida a few years earlier. South Florida was probably the worst big metro area for College Basketball in the country – football obsessed and with a secondary passion for other sports, NCAA hoops seemed a foreign thing to locals. 

That year Miami played eventually National Champions UConn twice – the first meeting when UConn was ranked #1 in the country gave the Hurricanes program its first ever sellout at the 15,000 seat Miami Arena. It was an event in an event town. You saw celebrities in abundance which was a shock. Miami lost 70-68 in OT after John Salmons potential game winning shot rimmed out. But a month later, Miami went to Storrs and handed UConn their only full strength loss all season. In that game, Miami made a critical stop on the last possession and it was Salmons man-to-man defense that did it. 

The Hurricanes shot up the AP Poll and finished the regular season in the Top 10, only one game behind UConn in the Big East standings. But Miami would be upset in the NCAA Tournament. As a 2-seed, the Hurricanes were too green a program to be given a favorite label and they crashed out against Purdue, a 10-seed in the Round of 32. 

In the following season, Miami started terribly, inexplicably losing some odd non-conference games. The Hurricanes got going in the Big East especially after a controversial last-second win at Villanova. However, it was the win in Storrs against UConn that cemented Miami’s charge on the league title, one which they would win after holding off St Johns in early March. But that season again, Miami’s crowds had dipped and local interest even from the media was at a low-ebb until the Canes beat UConn- then suddenly local papers and TV news got interested in what the team was doing. Miami made the Sweet 16 but was upset by Tulsa in that round – The Golden Hurricane were coached at the time by a guy named Bill Self, giving him his signature win en route to getting the Illinois and eventually the Kansas job.  

After that Big East title and Sweet 16 run, Miami coach Leonard Hamilton left for the NBA. He’d  eventually work his way back to the state and have even greater success at Florida State. But this left Miami with a coaching void, filled by Perry Clark from Tulane. In the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, Miami had brutal battles again with UConn. Packed houses filled the Miami Arena and actually stormed the court after a win in February 2002 (I was living in Tallahassee at the time, but watching on TV I found the court-storming bizarre. Miami wasn’t an upstart anymore. They were almost UConn’s equal at this point). 

The Miami program collapsed during the 2002-03 season ironically as the school opened its long-needed on campus gym. But that year, both meetings with UConn’s were classics – an overtime loss in Storrs and the famous Darius Rice game, where Miami stole an inbounds pass late and Rice nailed a three to beat UConn.  But Miami’s run of eight straight postseason appearances ended that year – and the Hurricanes would only make the NCAA’s once in the net ten seasons. That was a dark period, but in the last ten years since 2013, Miami has made six NCAA tournaments, and has built to get to where it is now. 

Since 2003

Unfortunately, the rivalry died as Miami moved to the ACC, a league where the Hurricanes have done well in this sport (but interestingly have not done well in football), but have not yet developed a real knock-down drag out rivalry which excites local fans the way the UConn series did at the time. 

Sure Duke and North Carolina are always big games and Florida State is an in-state rival. But none of those series are the same. Miami has been competing for ACC titles the last ten years, so every game is big in its own way, but it doesn’t quite capture the local imagination the same way.  Maryland felt sort of similar to be honest but then they left the conference to go to the Big Ten. Syracuse might be the game now actually for local fans, but that’s a Big East legacy thing more than anything. 

So it’s with no small irony, after years of flaming out in the tournament, in many cases earlier than expected that Miami will face UConn in its Final Four debut. Sometimes these things are written in the stars. 

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