Triple-shot of Florida sweetness

~  By Doug Fernandes

Just to be sure, I checked a tournament bracket still in play. (Not mine, the sheet of cerebrally flatline picks decomposing rapidly at the Sarasota County Landfill).

Yep, as I thought, the glasses don’t need upgrading after all. Not one, not two, but three Florida schools do, in fact, comprise college basketball’s Sweet 16.

What’s next, Kim Kardashian winning the Nobel Peace Prize?

Now, if this were a discussion about basketball as it’s played on Tobacco Road, or Florida football, French pastry, German cars or Canadian whisky, no one bothers with a second thought.

With them all, superiority is almost always assumed.

But this is about basketball as it’s played in Gainesville, in Tallahassee, in Coral Gables, and now, Fort Myers. Individually, yes, there have been moments of Sunshine State March Madness.

Many belong to the Gators, who, under head coach Billy Donovan, have made the NCAA tournament the last four years, and from 1999-2007. Included were seven appearances in the Sweet 16, five in the Elite Eight, three in the Final Four and two national championships.

After the Gators, a drop-off. The ‘Noles made their first tournament appearance in 1968, had a decent run in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and qualified from 2009-12. But only four berths in the Sweet 16 and two Elite Eights, the most recent in 1993.

Including this season the Hurricanes have made seven tournament appearances, two in the Sweet 16. And unless you’ve been in orbit the last week or so, everyone knows the FGCU Eagles.

When paired, it’s even bleaker. Only seven times have two Florida schools made the tournament, all from 1998-2012. Only twice have two reached the Sweet 16 (2000, Miami-Florida; 2011, Florida-FSU).

So, yeah, having three qualify this time is a big deal. Factor in the success of the NBA’s Miami Heat, and the state takes a backcourt to no one.

“For us, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast to be in the Sweet 16 is a great feeling,” said Miami’s Shane Larkin, “and it just proves that Florida has great basketball teams just like everybody else in the country.”

Marcus Liberty sees it continuing.

“When I first got here,” he said, “I saw talent in Florida, and now you see that a lot of guys are staying home. They’re not going to different states and playing their basketball.

“Now there’s a big demand because, for one, if you recruit a guy out of this state, you know you’re going to get an athlete. There are tons of athletes here in the state.

“I think now people are seeing that and that’s why you see three teams in the Sweet 16. There’s so much talent in the state.”

Where the Gators, ‘Canes and Eagles want to go, Marcus Liberty’s already been. The 44-year-old former McDonald’s All-American and Parade Player of the Year was a key member of the 1988-89 University of Illinois team that finished 31-5 under head coach Lou Henson.

Along with Kendall Gill, Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and Lowell Hamilton, Liberty, the Illini’s sixth man that season, reached the Final Four, defeating Louisville and Syracuse along the way, before losing to Michigan in the semifinals 83-81.

He’s been a Sarasota resident the last five months, providing basketball instruction in individual and group settings. He can be reached at

Liberty recalls the ingredients his Illinois team possessed, and what’s needed in general, to advance out of the Sweet 16.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Liberty said. “If you don’t have that cohesiveness or chemistry, it’s really, really hard, and that’s one thing I remember when we made it.

“We had to play together and we had one common goal. Was nobody on that team selfish, nothing about ‘I need to shoot all the balls.’ We knew that everybody had played an integral part of us being there, and I see that in a lot of the Florida teams.”

How sweet is that?