Miami, FAU proud to shine a spotlight on the state as basketball schools

Just four games into the 2021 season, Miami Hurricanes guard Isaiah Wong needed a layup with 0.7 seconds remaining to edge the scrappy FAU Owls 68-66 in Boca Raton. Now, the battle for South Florida is on the national stage.

Both teams left the Sunshine State this week and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Houston for their first Final Four in program history, beginning an onslaught of media interviews Thursday at NRG Stadium. More than a year later, the Hurricanes still remember that game.

“We were lucky to beat them by two at their place,” Miami head coach Jim Larranaga said. “And they’ve just grown from there.”

A rematch of that highly contested 2021 game could soon arrive — this time in the NCAA national championship — if FAU and Miami handle business against San Diego State and UConn, respectively, on Saturday night in a Final Four that does not feature a top-three seed for the first time ever.

No matter what happens this weekend, FAU and Miami have already changed the perception of South Florida sports.

“Football, when you think of South Florida, you think football,” FAU forward Giancarlo Rosado said. “Now two teams for South Florida [are] in the Final Four on the big national stage. That’s great for the community and that’s great for the youth because they’re looking at us like, man, those guys are doing it so we can do it.”

The ninth-seeded Owls took the college basketball world by storm in March, thwarting powerhouses like Tennessee and Kansas State en route to winning the East Region of the NCAA tournament. Fifth-seeded Miami won the Midwest by upsetting No. 1 Houston and No. 2 Texas only one year after advancing to its first-ever Elite Eight.

“As far as I’m concerned, I hope every 8- to 18-year-old that’s still growing and trying to find a school, I hope they follow FAU and Miami during this Final Four and decide, I’m going to play, basketball is going to be my primary sport,” Larrañaga said. “ …We have a lot of young players in Coral Gables and Miami that are going to be very highly recruited … And this only enhances it.”

This and That

This is the fourth time the Final Four will be held in Houston. Last time the national championship was played at the 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat North Carolina in 2016.

FAU is just the second No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four, joining Wichita State in 2013. If the Owls win Saturday, they will be the first No. 9 seed to make the championship game. Additionally, Miami is the seventh No. 5 seed to make the Final Four. No five seed has ever won the NCAA championship.

Guard Michael Forrest is no ordinary student athlete. Forrest, a graduate of Pompano Beach Ely, juggles mechanical engineering with playing basketball at the highest level. “There’s definitely been a lot of nights where you really don’t get enough sleep … So it takes a lot of dedication to be able to do both,” he said. “So I’m grateful to be able to have the mindset to do both.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled limited edition bobbleheads of FAU’s and Miami’s mascots — Owlsey, Hoot and Sebastian the Ibis — to celebrate the program’s historic seasons Friday. The Owls’ bobblehead features their mascot holding a newspaper with the headline “Florida Atlantic Makes History in 2023,” while Sebastian hoists a newspaper that exclaims “Miami Makes History in 2023” for the Canes.

Wong was heavily recruited by UConn, the only other school he officially visited besides Miami. Wong placed the Huskies in his top three schools and said, “I spent a lot of time thinking about UConn and the decision … I have a lot of great connections with the coach and the assistants and all of them.”

Kyle Guy, a 2019 NCAA champion with the University of Virginia, gave advice to Miami’s Nijel Pack, who attended the same high school in Indianapolis. Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who made the Final Four twice with Butler, and Kansas head coach Bill Self reached out to FAU coach Dusty May, too.