'Worth the wait': After 20 years, USF back in NCAAs
TAMPA -- USF made a long-awaited piece of history Sunday night with the program's first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years. The Bulls now won't have to wait long at all for a shot at their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
The Bulls earned a spot in the "First Four" round in Dayton, Ohio, and a date with fellow No. 12 seed California at 9:30 Wednesday night, with the winner advancing to face Temple in Nashville on Friday. It's an extra step that didn't exist the last time the Bulls were in the tournament, but one they'll gladly take.
"It's an exciting day for our program, our university, our community. We're excited to be a part of the field of 68," said coach Stan Heath, who has previously taken Kent State and Arkansas to the NCAAs as a head coach. "It was a little nerve-wracking, but it was worth the wait. ... We still feel like we can play better basketball, and we're excited to have an opportunity to go forward."
USF (20-13) won a school-record 12 conference games -- another this week in the Big East tournament -- and knew entering Sunday that 69 Big East teams had won 12 or more conference games, and 69 had made the NCAA cut. Still, USF's merits for an at-large berth were debated in the national media all week, with experts divided all the way up to Sunday's 6 p.m. announcement. USF ended up getting the nod over another Big East bubble team, Seton Hall, which lost to the Bulls head-to-head and was four seeds lower in the Big East tournament, losing a day earlier than the Bulls this week.
USF and Cal represent different ends of the "Power Six" basketball spectrum -- the Big East got nine schools in the NCAA field, while the Pac-12 mustered only two in Cal and surprise tournament champion Colorado. Cal (24-9) has not beaten a team this year with an RPI as high as USF's (53 on Sunday), and the Golden Bears lost three of their last four games, none against ranked opponents.
Heath knows all about the NCAA Tournament -- he won a national title at Michigan State in 2000 -- and USF has a morsel of tournament experience on its roster, as senior center Ron Anderson played two games as a freshman at Kansas State in 2008. He said Sunday's nervous waiting gave way to pure celebration, then, to his delight, the familiar look of accepting the team's next challenge.
"The thing I like is that right after they called our name, we celebrated for a little bit, but then everybody got into business mode real quick. They're ready for practice tomorrow," Anderson said. "We're going to be playing earlier than most of the teams, but the guys are eager to get it started."
USF's only other trips to the NCAAs were in 1990 and 1992, both resulting in opening-round losses. The Bulls had a chance two years ago but played in the Postseason NIT, again losing in the opening round. The last postseason win of any kind was in the 1995 NIT, beating St. John's and Coppin State.
"I didn't know if we'd get in, so I was definitely nervous," said junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, a Tampa native who graduated from King High. "Not only does it mean a lot to me, but to our program and the city itself. It's exciting to see everybody get up for our team and support us."