AUSTIN, Texas -- At the left side of the Miami locker room on Sunday night, Julian Gamble said, "They're playing each other?"
And in the back right corner a few minutes later, Reggie Johnson said, "They're playing each other?"
And by the back wall a few more minutes after that, Trey McKinney Jones paused from his boxed post-game meal to chat and say, "Oh, they're playing each other."
Thereby did three South Florida basketball players learn that a team from North Florida would be playing a team from Southwest Florida in a Sweet 16 that also will include the aforementioned team from South Florida. So call this a Floridian triangle, very nearly isosceles. Call this a Floridian watershed. Call this Sunshine State sovereignty, Sunshine State supremacy, Sunshine State supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, to use a prehistoric term probably none of the players has heard before.
"We're catching up," Miami point guard Shane Larkin said.
"Oh, my goodness, that's going to be crazy," Gamble said of Florida Gulf Coast University versus University of Florida.
"Oh man, that's going to be a fun game to watch," Johnson echoed.
"They don't back down to anyone," McKinney Jones said of the FGCU Eagles, which also you could say about the Florida Gators, which also you could say about the Miami Hurricanes.
Nine states have one team left, two states (Kansas, Michigan) have two each and one has three. It figures even if it didn't seem to figure. Precisely 600 years ago this month, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon rigged up three ships from Puerto Rico for passage to some rumored land to the west. Those ships supposedly were The Santiago, The San Cristobal and The Santa Maria de la Consolacion, even though some historians believe they were The Spurrier, The Bowden and The Schnellenberger, while others have begun to claim it was The Donovan, The Larranaga and The Enfield.
They set forth on March 3, 1513, either out of curiosity, greed or the hope to make it in time for a subregional.
They moved slowly, with Ponce de Leon trying to guide the ship amid untold whining about busted brackets. Only by March 27, 600 years ago today, had they reached the northern Bahamas, supposedly not seeing Florida until April 2, 1513 when, from great distance, they spotted Dan Marino's ego.
Actually, no, they saw either St. Augustine or Melbourne Beach, although some Floridians claim they saw Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Historians have them coming ashore on April 3, just in time for the Final Four.
How, 600 years on, did three Florida teams get into the last 16? About three different ways.
The Gators got there because that's what they tend to do. You may or may not have noticed, but out of the last 15 March Madnesses, Florida has alighted in the Sweet 16 a whopping seven times. Only Duke (12), Kansas (10) and Michigan State (10) have done so more (with Kentucky, Connecticut and North Carolina also at seven). It's hard to have an annual 16 for very long without the team from Gainesville turning up.
Why? Oh, because Mr. Billy Donovan is an awesome bloody force of nature who has recruited and coached three waves of players making deep pushes toward April. "And the one thing that's been positive for me is I think sometimes, at least back when I got here (in 1996), people always wanted to create a divide between football and basketball, and create animosity," Donovan said. "And that couldn't be further from the truth of what the environment is at Florida. Everybody supports each other, everybody helps each other. I've been at Florida with (Steve) Spurrier, (Ron) Zook, Urban (Meyer) and now Will (Muschamp). And I've had great relationships with all those guys."
According to various reports, Donovan has declined between 1,000 and 2,000 opportunities to depart within the last decade, probably a slight exaggeration.
When the 2012-13 season began, Florida found itself with a promising returning core, but Miami found itself with a relishable oddity: a whole batch of fine seniors, plus a sophomore point guard worthy of sonnets. "We felt like we were the most talented team in the ACC coming into the season," said Larkin, that sophomore point guard. They ratified that feeling by winning the regular season for the first time, winning the ACC Tournament for the first time and winning two games in Austin including one against an Illinois team playing a spiteful defense.
Thereafter did head coach Jim Larranaga walk into the locker room and tell his players he had asked them to be fighters and they had been "Muhammad Ali."
"There are different things that bring people closer together," Larranaga said. "Probably the best thing that kept this team together is the desire to get to the NCAA tournament and make some noise." One more noisy win, and this uncommonly cohesive bunch will go further than any Miami basketball team has in the past.
Their six losses sprinkled across five months include one to FGCU which got to the Sweet 16 as well … and, well, there's no explaining FGCU, the first No. 15 seed ever in the second weekend.
The Miami Hurricanes can try. In their second game in November, they fell 63-51 to the Eagles at FGCU's Alico Arena, where a sign reads, "Protect the Nest!"
"Florida Gulf Coast is an incredible team," Gamble said. "They have so many X-factors and shoot a lot of threes as well. It was a lot of regret because we didn't play as hard as we should have. They just played so much harder and with so much more energy and we really learned a lesson that night."
"The atmosphere was incredible," Johnson said. "Sort of a small school (arena capacity 4,500). That gym, I think it was oversold. They really fed off the crowd."
"They just have a very confident team," McKinney Jones said. "They just play so loose and relaxed, and don't care whom they're playing against."
That grew obvious last weekend in Philadelphia, when a school that broke ground in 1995, started classes in 1997 and had recruits presuming it a junior college when head coach Andy Enfield dialed them just two years ago, went and blasted through Georgetown and San Diego State and into the Cinderella Zone. Along that weekend way, they employed a compelling strategy: joy.
They went 15-1 in their nest this season. They finished second in the Atlantic Sun behind Mercer, which apparently has a real gripe with the NCAA tournament selection committee. They lost twice, and once at home, to Lipscomb, which apparently also has a real gripe with the NCAA tournament selection committee. They won their conference tournament over Mercer and by the time a throng gathered in their gym for Selection Sunday dusk, their fans already had down the chant: "Sherwood! Sherwood!" (As in Brown, their star senior guard who averaged 15.6 points this season).
Their FGCU world seemed as if some tiny world within the world. The public address reminded patrons they could, well, "Call at 590-7107 about joining the Eagles Club!"
The area code is 239, in case you need it.
Before the show started and the name "Florida Gulf Coast" popped up, the basketball fan and FGCU president Wilson Bradshaw told the crowd a story. He had been in Tallahassee recently for a meeting that week and had seen Donna Shalala, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services and the president of the University of Miami. Both work in a football state with good basketball players. The University of Florida has seven guys native to state, including the crucial starters Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Kenny Boynton. Florida Gulf Coast University has four, including Brown from Orlando. Miami has three, including Larkin from Orlando. "Orlando's got a lot of great talent," Larkin said.
So as they said goodbye, Bradshaw recalled that Shalala said to him, "See you at the Final Four." The crowd roared and laughed. What a good line. What a nice little joke.