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College basketball in the Sunshine State has been played mostly in the shadows. Except for a blaze of glory in the early '70s, when Jacksonville and Florida State flared into national prominence by each finishing second in the NCAAs, the state has had no Final Four teams and precious few All-Americas.
Since 1970, when Jacksonville, starring Artis Gilmore and Rex Morgan, lost to UCLA in the national finals, the Dolphins haven't made it past the first round of the NCAAs. Although an NCAA finalist in 1972, Florida State is known mostly for Dave Cowens and playing second fiddle to Louisville in the Metro Conference. The University of Florida hasn't run anywhere since Neal Walked and has never won the SEC. As for the University of South Florida, no one outside the state has been able to figure out if the school is actually Florida Southern, Southern Florida or, because of its initials, the University of San Francisco. A burgeoning national power in basketball, they say in Florida. But have they been out in the sun too long?
Maybe not, if last week's inaugural Florida Four tournament at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa was any indication. It brought together four Florida teams with respected coaches, refurbished images and renewed interest in making basketball something more than a minor diversion in a football-crazy state. Since 1972 only Florida State has cracked the Top 20, but the Seminoles didn't stay there long. This year the state may well produce a legitimate Top 20 team.
The leading candidate is South Florida, which won the Florida Four by defeating Florida 58-56 and Florida State 82-67. Indeed, nowhere is the boom in Florida basketball more evident than at USF, where Coach Lee Rose arrived from Purdue last year—and went 18-11 with almost the same team that was 6-21 the previous season. That performance earned the Bulls their first postseason bid, to the NIT, where they lost 65-55 to Connecticut in the first round.
This year USF has been picked to finish second behind Alabama-Birmingham in the Sun Belt Conference. The Bulls have a front line that goes 7'0" (Jim Grandholm), 6'11" (Willie Redden) and 6'9" (Vince Reynolds). They have a bona fide All-America candidate in Guard Tony Grier. They have an enthusiastic Sun Dome cheering section called The Rose Garden. And they have their first certified loony, a band member named Kevin Cramer, who drops his French horn and performs an awkward semi-striptease during time-outs. "Nothing like that ever happened around here before," says Redden. Most of all, though, USF has Rose, whose deification in Tampa is imminent. Rose may not quite be in the Dean Smith-Bobby Knight-Ray Meyer pantheon of active coaches, but his instant success at South Florida has him knocking at the door.
Still, the Florida Four Tournament was not just USF's show. It served as a coming-out party for all four schools, the kind of provincial showcase that fans in North Carolina know as the Big Four. And Lord knows no one needed such a showcase more than the state of Florida.
The difficulties these schools have faced in upgrading their programs in some ways parallel those once encountered by the University of Miami, which doesn't even play basketball anymore. Like Jacksonville and, to a lesser degree, Florida and Florida State, Miami had a basketball tradition; after all, Rick Barry starred there, and the Hurricanes played in three NITs in the early '60s. But Miami never had a campus facility for basketball—Barry played his home games at the Miami Beach Convention Center and at Miami-Dade Junior College—and the Hurricanes finally dropped the sport in 1971. The idea of resurrecting it does surface now and then, but by and large college basketball has gone unmourned in Miami.
Until last season Florida, which beat Jacksonville 84-73 to finish third in the Florida Four, played its home games in a 5,500-seat campus sardine can known as Alligator Alley. Until this year, Florida State was burdened with Tully Gymnasium, dubbed Tiny Tully for its capacity of fewer than 3,000. South Florida had it worst of all. In 1979-80 it played its "home" games at four different sites—The Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg (40 miles from its campus), the Civic Center in Lakeland (25 miles), Curtis Hixon Hall in downtown Tampa (15 miles) and the Tampa State Fairgrounds (seven miles). "It got to be one of those things like 'If today is Tuesday, then this must be Curtis Hixon,' " says USF Sports Information Director Dave Jovanovic.
The college's shoddy gym situation was disastrous for recruiting. Every year Sunshine State coaches looked on in anguish as the considerable homegrown talent shipped out, citrus fruit-like, by the crateload. "I don't know how many kids we lost because of Tully," says Florida State Coach Joe Williams. "Heck, a lot of these kids played in high school gyms that were better." Williams' predecessor, Hugh Durham, left Florida State in 1979 for Georgia partly because of perennial hassles about the gym.
Now, however, Florida, Florida State and USF are all playing in spiffy arenas that opened within the last two years. (Jacksonville, which has no plans for a campus facility, is quite content with the refurbished 9,500-seat Veterans Memorial Coliseum, four miles from its campus.) South Florida's home attendance jumped 256% when it moved into the Sun Dome last year, and certainly the new arenas are a big reason that 19 of the 27 freshmen and sophomores on the combined rosters of Florida, Florida State and USF are native sons. They include freshmen Eugene McDowell of Florida and Charles Bradley of USF, two of the most intensely recruited schoolboy players in the state last year.