When the 1993-94 college basketball season began, the Florida Gators had never been to the Final Four. In fact, they had played just six NCAA Tournament games in program history. But 22 years ago, Lon Kruger’s Gators crashed March Madness, joining Arizona, Duke and eventual champion Arkansas at the Final Four in Charlotte.
Florida’s basketball team got inspiration from a variety of places that year, including – believe it or not – Steve Spurrier’s football team.
“We were always very competitive (with each other) – both programs,” former Gator great Dan Cross said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “(We knew) that our closest friends (were) on ESPN and being ranked in the top five, top 10. Our goal was to somehow, someway, have the accomplishment and the goal of being put on the map the same way the football players had the football program. Internally, there was a rivalry within (us) to say, ‘Hey, we’re just as good of athletes as you guys are, and we want to prove that on the national scene.’ We were able to do so.”
Cross certainly did his part. The Chicago native led the Gators in scoring and was a two-time honorable mention All-American, leading Florida to tournament wins over James Madison, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Boston College. Florida ultimately lost to Duke, 70-65, in the national semifinals, but a Gators assistant coach, Billy Donovan, eventually led the program to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
Cross and his former teammates, including Andrew DeClerq and Dametri Hill, feel their run in ’94 helped propel the program to new heights in the decade that followed.
“Definitely,” Cross said. “There was a group of us that believed in doing things the right way. We wanted to be a part of tradition. What that did was allow Billy, who had recruited me, to come in and continue the tradition – not only just for the University of Florida, but for the state of Florida. The whole state is known as a football state and produces probably some of the greatest athletes there is in the country. To be able to do that and be a part of tradition 22 years later, it’s definitely a good feeling.”
Looking ahead to this year’s Final Four, Cross believes Kruger can get the job done at Oklahoma and win his first national title.
“He’s an X-and-O guy,” Cross said. “When it comes to that, he’s just not going to be out-coached. As you know, most of the games (in) the tournament, there aren’t too many blowout games. The games will end up being close. The last five minutes of the ball game, it’s not the best team that wins; it’s the best team that executes and the best team that has the discipline when it comes to (executing) what the coach draws up in his plays during the timeouts. Ninety percent of the time, those teams end up winning, and a lot of times it’s at the free-throw line or (drawing up a play) to (put) a team up three or five. He’s been very good over his years getting the best out of his players, and he was able to do so with us.”
Oklahoma (29-7) and Villanova (33-5) tip off this Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET.