There are 32 major college basketball teams that will be competing this week in the respective Sweet Sixteens of the respective men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments. Four schools have teams in both genders’ tourneys.
- The University of Connecticut: 11-time NCAA women’s championships, plus 4 men’s titles in a 15-year span between 1999-2014.
- UCLA: 11-time men’s basketball champions, plus a pre-NCAA title as best in women’s basketball in 1978 with the AIAW.
- The University of Tennessee: 8-time NCAA women’s champions.
- The University of Miami: Zero NCAA championships, men, women or manatee.
As both a fan and a former instructor for the U, I’m both shocked and thrilled by last weekend’s events, which saw the men’s team advance to the third round for the second consecutive year and the women’s team for only the second time in its history, and the first time in 31 years. Plenty of basketball fans in Florida with greater auspices than me are just as giddy, notably Dickie V, who tweeted these twin accomplishments with appropriate state pride:
Things going great @miamiuniversity as both @CanesHoops @CanesWBBr doing #awesomebaby the Canes Women’s team sprung a major upset beating @IndianaWBB highly rated Hoosiers@CanesCoachL‘s team also eliminated the Hoosiers . Hey I thought Miami was a football school.
Yes, Indiana has been to college basketball what Miami has been to college football, at least record-wise. But even the most supportive South Floridians are aware that the greatest years of football prominence at the U were fraught with scandal and allegations of bribes and payouts. Indeed, the football era’s success was best chronicled by the award-winning ESPN 30 for 30 documentary THE U. As its promo blurb explains, the nature of the school’s athletic program changed forever as a result:
Throughout the 1980s, Miami, Fla., was at the center of a racial and cultural shift taking place throughout the country. Overwhelmed by riots and tensions, Miami was a city influx, and the University of Miami football team served as a microcosm for this evolution. The image of the predominantly white university was forever changed when coach Howard Schnellenberger scoured some of the toughest ghettos in Florida to recruit mostly black players for his team. With a newly branded swagger, inspired and fueled by the quickly growing local Miami hip-hop culture, these Hurricanes took on larger-than-life personalities and won four national titles between 1983 and 1991.
The road to football prominence was paved with scandal, enough so that the multiple infractions that were associated with many of those championship teams were enough to have the NCAA impose severe sanctions, including a one-year post-season ban in the late 90s. The 2000s were an era defined by uberfan Nevin Shapiro, whom Wikipedia remembers thusly:
Much of the 2011 University of Miami athletics scandal involved acts by Nevin Shapiro, a University of Miami booster and fan. Some time between 1999 and 2003, under cover of a grocery business called Capitol Investments USA, Shapiro operated a $930 million Ponzi scheme, which eventually collapsed in November 2009. On April 21, 2010, Shapiro was charged in New Jersey with securities fraud and money laundering, and he pleaded guilty to one count of each on September 15, 2010. On June 7, 2011, he was sentenced to twenty years in federal prison and ordered to make $82,657,362.29 in restitution.
But in the era of NIL, it’s a lot easier–and more legal–to find ways to get talented young athletes to come to Coral Gables. And that reality has apparently caused consternation among many personalities at schools that can’t quite offer the climate or the lifestyle of South Florida. As Dana O’Neil of The Athletic reports, we can now add the name John Ruiz to the list of well-heeled uberfans:
While the NCAA dithers with how to regulate NIL and other coaches wring their hands with worry about its impact, Miami has unapologetically jumped in with both feet. Backed by a brazen billionaire booster who has no qualms about sharing his financial investments, the No. 5 seed Hurricanes head to Kansas City for a regional semifinal date with top-seed Houston. They are led by Nijel Pack, the pint-sized point guard transfer from Kansas State who supposedly pocketed the northside of three-quarters of a million dollars, and Isaiah Wong, the aggressive leading scorer, who used Pack’s good fortune to improve his own situation.
And yet there was Ruiz, perceived at least to be running right up to — and in one case perhaps crossing over — the line in the span of a rather busy three weeks at the start of the 2022-23 preseason. On April 13, 2022, Ruiz posted a picture outside his home with Haley and Hanna Cavinder, the social media-famous basketball twins who were transferring from Fresno State. Ten days later, on the same day Miami announced Pack (a first-team All-Big 12 guard) had transferred in, Ruiz tweeted his own “breaking news,” announcing not only his company’s NIL partnership but the terms of the deal.
One week after that, Wong’s agent, Adam Papas, threatened a transfer if Wong’s comparatively low $100,000 NIL pot wasn’t sweetened (Wong later distanced himself from the threat). Ruiz initially played hardball, telling ESPN that he “did not renegotiate” but later tweeted that he looked forward to helping Wong, who led the Hurricanes to the Elite Eight a year ago, find more deals.
In the men’s case, Ohio University coach Jeff Boals tweeted out his frustration after the ‘Canes’ first-round conquest of Drake, inaccurately reflecting the accuracy of Wong and Pack and raising the ire of Canes Warning’s Alan Rubenstein, who set Boals straight with a biased but accurate rebuke of his claim that Miami “bought” their Sweet 16:
Miami Herald columnist Barry Jackson and Hurricanes’ fans called out Boals for speaking out while being someone who is supposed to be a “leader of men.” Boals was a walk-on at Ohio who averaged 5.6 points per game, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 93 games as a player between 1991-95.
And as for the women, well, while the Cavinder twins are among the most prominent female influencers on TikTok, Rubenstein reminds that they actually began their ascent in the San Joaquin Valley, where raisins, not oranges, are the dominant crop:
Miami has continually received criticism nationally since athletes have been allowed to earn money from their own Name, Image and Likeness. Athletes nationally are allowed to earn their own endorsement deals. Current Miami basketball stars Haley and Hanna Cavinder became TikTok stars while playing for Fresno State.
And as NBC6 South Florida’s Tim Reynolds points out, these twins, while they are indisputedly social media and South Florida clickbait, they are also quite good at actually playing the game:
Women’s basketball practice at Miami had been over for 30 minutes. Most of the coaches were gone. Almost all the players were gone. The scoreboard had long been turned off.
The Cavinder twins were still working.
Haley and Hanna Cavinder made their way around the 3-point arc, one shooting, then the other, over and over with a couple male practice players rebounding. The guys didn’t have to do much, since most every shot went through the net with a soft swish.
“What nobody knows about the twins,” Miami coach Katie Meier said, “is that they’re gym rats.”
The twins are major influencers with 4.4 million followers on TikTok alone, two of the bigger stars of the NIL era in college athletics, a pair of 22-year-olds who didn’t set out to get famous through short videos. They’re as serious about basketball as they are just about anything else, though that isn’t always noticed by those in the comment section.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that it hasn’t frustrated me. It has,” said Haley Cavinder, the older twin by two minutes. “I feel like coming in, you have to prove that. But that comes with it. I think people will paint you how they want to paint you. And if I’m known as an influencer and being successful, then that’s fine with me.”
Dirty? Debatable, certainly historically. Nowadays–it’s a much murkier road. And, hey, where would YOU rather be in February? Athens, Ohio? Fresno, California? Or the 305?
And the bottom line is–these athletes, paid for or not, had to go out and actually play well enough to beat Indiana teams from a stronger conference than the ACC who have dedicated their lives to the sport, and who live in a climate where alternatives to being a gym rat this time of you aren’t all that attractive. And in the case of the women’s team, they upset the #1 seed in their region on THEIR court.
As O’Neill’s nuanced ATHLETIC piece recaps, apparently what Ruiz is doing these days to make Miami a basketball school may be aggravating to others, but to him–well, it’s his passion:
All of (this) serves as the explanatory backdrop to Ruiz’s hobby, for lack of a better word, and why, when states began to break down the last walls separating college athletes and payment, he found a new way to spend his money. He earmarked $10 million for Miami athletes in the first year of NIL. “Obviously the University of Miami was good for me, but it’s been great for a lot of kids,’’ he says. “You want to do good in your community. This is my community.
Ruiz’s NIL bankrolling isn’t entirely different from the various collectives sponsored by alums at schools across the country; it just so happens to be funded by one man. It’s more the very public way he broadcast his investments and the implications of his methods that raised people’s hackles.
The odds are still quite long that either team will see a Final Four this year. The men face off Friday with top seed Houston, arguably the tournament’s second-best team. And the women have Villanova to contend with, a far deeper team. Money can get you to a Dance, but it can’t buy you dancing lessons.
So my humble advice to those who are complaining about all this being scandalous and reminiscent of a much darker era, one that included actual crimes and abuses far more severe than payoffs: It’s 2023. They’re the U. Stop tweeting and start playing the game.
Just like 4.4 million TikTok followers who are discovering women’s college basketball do every day, and millions of men’s fans will do this weekend rooting for Wong and Pack.
Ignore the haters. Rock them, Canes.