Blue bloods, beware: Miami, FAU in Final Four prove it’s a new day in college basketball | Opinion

We are going to go ahead and say it because for the first time in, well, ever, there is the chance to say it without it seeming like sheer lunacy:

South Florida is the national seat of college basketball.

For one shining moment or a few magic weeks, we are it. South to north, Coral Gables to Boca Raton with Davie smack in the middle, is a 51-mile corridor, an hour’s drive with these three stops:

The Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA men’s Final Four for the first time ever. After the Canes women reached the Elite Eight for the first time before losing Sunday night — overshadowed now, but a run that would own the marquee most years.

UM was one of only four schools (with UConn, Tennessee and UCLA) to have both teams in the NCAA Tournament, and the last with two standing. Of the four, Miami allots the biggest percentage of ts overall basketball budget (37.5 percent) to its women’s program.

The Florida Atlantic Owls also in the men’s Final Four, also two wins from a national championship in that school’s first time in program history even winning a single game in the tournament.

And mustn’t ignore the Nova Southeastern Sharks, newly minted NCAA men’s Division II national champions for the first time on the wing of a perfect 36-0 season.

Wait. This is a football town, yes? Miami Dolphins with their Perfect Season. Hurricanes football with their five national titles. And if anyone was paying attention to basketball down here it probably was the Heat winning their three NBA titles.

Now it is college hoops that grips the region. It may not last, but like never before it’s real right now.

UM coach Jim Larranaga got 400 text messages and has heard from every fellow Atlantic Coach Conference coach since reaching the Final Four. He also got “a very thoughtful text” from FAU coach Dusty May after the Canes beat Texas on Sunday to advance. The bracket has the possibility the two would meet in the championship game if both win their semifinals.

“It’s wonderful for our region,” Larranaga said Monday, exhausted after the team’s delayed return flight landed in Miami at 4 a.m. “Everyone recognizes the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area as great for football and baseball [talent], but we also produce very good basketball players. Hopefully young kids who watch us and FAU in the Final Four will pick up a roundball and start shooting it.”

Much of the magic in all this is the surprise in it. This is the thing sports can do that ruins brackets and loses bets yet enchants us over sheer possibility.

Nothing masters “anything can happen” better than sports, the original and still-best reality TV.

Hurricanes men’s hoops enjoyed an occasional Sweet 16 before something clicked with two straight Elite Eights now turning to Houston for the Final Four — two transformational words that anoint a program quite ceremonially, and bless it with hardwood holy water. This is the same school that canceled men’s basketball from 1971 until 1985, because it didn’t matter enough on campus.

That same school will sell out its Final Four allotment of 3,500 tickets. The 700 UM student-section tickets sold out in 30 minutes.

FAU had made the NCAA Tournament only once before, in 2002, losing in the first round, until this year. A year ago the Owls settled for the College Basketball Invitational, a postseason of last resort, where you go if the NIT says no. Now, this.

Nova Southeastern plays in a 4,500-seat arena and probably doesn’t have enough fans to float a championship parade so they’re not quite sure how to celebrate it. Pep rally in the gym?

“I don’t want anything,” Nova coach Jim Crutchfield said Monday, chuckling. “It’s already happened. I’m not into big hoopla. Not a big banquet guy.”

So how did this happen? A region once so barren in college basketball suddenly becoming a Mecca?

It is a byproduct of the landscape changing across college sports, with the tumult of colleges changing conferences, the transfer portal turning college athletes into de facto free agents, and Name, Image and Likeness rules wiping away the last vestiges of amateurism from “student-athletes.”

The change is reflected in zero men’s No. 1 seeds still standing, and three of the four men’s Final Four teams in it for the first time. FAU and San Diego State are the other newbies joining Miami. Only UConn — UM’s semifinal opponent in Houston on Saturday night — has been here, done this and is in blue blood territory.

Larranaga mentioned South Florida’s homegrown talent, but the transfer portal and player movement has made that less and less vital.

“This Final Four demonstrates the parity in college basketball right now,” Larranaga said. “It also demonstrates the impact the transfer portal has had. The portal allows a team to get older [and more experienced] very quickly.”

Last season only nine Division I schools in the country (Miami was one) did not have any players transfer out.

“They’re all looking someplace where the grass is greener, and they find it in in programs they assimilate to,” Larranaga said.

The sudden change is why, in a given year, blue bloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are watching the Final Four from the outside — watching interlopers like Miami, FAU and San Diego State taking over what once was their rather exclusive playground.

UM leading scorer Isaiah Wong is a career Cane, but the other top three point guys all are transfers: Jordan Miller — star of Sunday’s win over Texas — transferred from George Mason two years ago. Two new transfers this season — Nigel Pack from Kansas State and Norchad Omier from Arkansas State — have contributed hugely to this team and its run. Pack got a hefty NIL deal.

FAU’s rise has been less transfer-driven. Top scorers Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin are third-year Owls, although third-best scorer Vladislav Goldin, the big Russian, arrived in Boca two years ago from Texas Tech. FAU’s ascension is due more to the school hitting on a great coaching hire in May. Athletic director Brian White was hired March 3, 2018c and made May his first hire 19 days later.

“Let’s see what happens over the next four, five years,” Miami athletics director Dan Radakovich said. “The transfer portal is two years old. Same with NIL. Indiana, Duke, North Carolina and those schools are not not going anywhere. But the parity has come.”

Examples: Division II champ Nova Southeastern can play with the big boys. The sharks played UM in an exhibition last year and were within four points late. Nova played FAU in an exhibition this season and only lost, 83-80.

FAU’s May gave a shoutout to Crutchfield and his program in his postgame remarks after the Owls beat Kansas State to reach the Final Four.

“It amazes me what we’ve done collectively this season,” Crutchfield said. “And Jim Larranaga and Dusty May are genuinely humble guys and great coaches.”

Miami and FAU both are underdogs in Saturdays’ semifinals. No surprise.

UM is 4-0 in this tournament and has been the underdog in the last three. The players have adopted an us-against-the-world mind-set with the slogan, “Don’t Pick Us.” They believe self-belief is all that matters.

Larranaga paraphrases from a book he often touts, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

“Begin with the end in mind,” he says. “You gotta have a goal, a vision of where you’re going. In our GPS, we put Houston as our destination That was going to be our road map.”

The tectonic plates have shifted and altered the landscape of college basketball.

That the Miami Hurricanes and FAU are out in front of it now and in the Final Four is all the proof you need.