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Sad state of hoops for Big Three

Big-time college basketball in Florida is having a small-time season.While middleweight schools like Tampa, Rollins, Florida Southern, Eckerd and Florida A&M are excelling, and light heavies USF, Stetson and Jacksonville can manage a smile, our state's heavyweight athletic names - FSU, Florida and Miami - have been splashing along, for a variety of reasons, in acid rain.

By now, I expected Final Four contenders. Instead, no one from Florida likely will make the NCAA final 64. After years of promise, with rising arenas and flowering talent, our state now wins the Bakker-Swaggart Trophy for Backsliding.

Not hopeless, but scary.

Hurricanes (8-12): They're spinning wheels in the Miami mud. One night, the non-competitive NBA Heat packs 15,000 into Miami Arena, and the next evening UM barely draws enough for a firing squad. Five years ago, the football megapower from Coral Gables restarted a basketball program shelved since the 1960s when Rick Barry was a boy wonder. But now, Bill Foster is a lame-duck coach, and the words "give up" ring in the ear.

Seminoles (13-13): Understandably mediocre in 1989-90. Pat Kennedy lost two-thirds of a 22-8 team from a year ago, and then a university judicial officer drydocked the Seminoles' ace returnee, Tharon Mayes, for smacking a parking-lot attendant. In Tallahassee, it's "wait 'til next season," when 6-foot-9 superkid Douglas Edwards becomes academically eligible.

Gators (6-15): UF should dial 911, and apply for disaster relief.

Basketball in Gainesville is an orange-and-blue mess. Norm Sloan was impeached as coach. Petulant, hairy, 7-2 Dwayne Schintzius flew the hoop coop, as did 6-7 Livingston Chatman, a 20-year-old who cited "burnout." From 21-13 SEC champions, the Gators have become inept under besieged interim coach Don DeVoe.

Add up the Fat Three's record, and it's an odious 27-40. A year ago, the UM-FSU-UF troika was 62-33. Bet on the Seminoles bouncing back. Miami's future is uncertain. But it's the Gators who are toughest to figure. Today, the foundation of UF basketball seems constructed of papier mache. Willowing in the wind, and subject to melt.

Something dramatic, and positive, is needed. And quickly. Gators'

recruiting is futile. Spectators at O'Connell Center are angry, impatient and getting nastier. DeVoe has little chance to survive. UF deals with the possibility of an NCAA death penalty. If indeed the current season can be classified as living.

If minds are made up, and UF athletic director Bill Arnsparger plans to eject DeVoe, the Gators should be expedient in chasing a new coach and establishing a revised, well-scrubbed modus operandi. At best, it'll be a steep climb back to respectability, and competitiveness.

Jim Crews of Evansville pops to mind as a UF coaching possibility.

But there's a multitude of candidates. Even with its open sores, Florida is a sweet opportunity. But something must be done quickly before O'Connell Center becomes a wasteland.

Me? I'm just itchy to see Florida college basketball back on the upswing. State high school talent is ample, if the supreme teens are sold on staying home. Facilities, once shabby, are now imposing.

Superb arenas sit in Orlando, Miami, Tallahassee, Gainesville and Tampa. A new 43,000-seat domed stadium in St. Petersburg offers a new plateau of opportunity, if the sport develops adequate drawing power.

For years, we heard the whine, "Florida just isn't a basketball state. This ain't Indiana, Kentucky or North Carolina. People here like their football and baseball, but little else." A claim being debunked by pro franchises in Miami and Orlando, where the NBA is now "the thing to do" and sellout crowds keep coming to watch last-place expansion teams.

If FSU blossoms, and Florida reverses its sad flow, it'd be a twin

catalyst. Put nationally ranked teams into the big rooms in Tallahassee and Gainesville, and in the 1990s the SRO crowds will be there. Then, as added spice, there's that big house in St. Petersburg.

The Florida Suncoast Dome has the capacity to host an NCAA regional tournament, or even the Final Four. It's not out of reach. But chances fade if Florida college basketball slides into a dumpster.

Perhaps 1990, for the UF-FSU-UM triumvirate, is but a painful aberration. But so much is broken, notably in Gainesville, it's going to need a world of fixing. Sadly, for Orlando Arena, this is the season the Mickey Mousers picked to put on the Southeastern Conference tournament, with the homestate Gators in intensive care.

Better luck next time.

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