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For first time ever, USF's home opener will have day start

Quinton Flowers and Co. will have a toasty-warm home debut this season, opening against Stony Brook on Sept. 2 at 4 p.m.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Quinton Flowers and Co. will have a toasty-warm home debut this season, opening against Stony Brook on Sept. 2 at 4 p.m.

The inaugural USF home game of the Charlie Strong era also will be an unprecedented one of sorts.

The American Athletic Conference announced Wednesday the Bulls' 2017 home debut Sept. 2 against Stony Brook will kick off at 4 p.m., becoming the first home opener in program history with a non-evening kickoff. The game will be broadcast online via ESPN3.

It's USF's first home day game against a non-FBS opponent since its 59-0 rout of Austin Peay on Nov. 18, 2000. That one kicked off at 3:35 p.m. …

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Former USF quarterback Steven Bench arrested

Former USF quarterback Steven Bench was arrested in Tampa early Monday morning on burglary and criminal-mischief charges.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Former USF quarterback Steven Bench was arrested in Tampa early Monday morning on burglary and criminal-mischief charges.

Former Bulls quarterback Steven Bench, who made three starts in as many seasons at USF, was arrested in Tampa early Monday morning on burglary and criminal mischief charges.

Bench, who turns 23 next week, was arrested shortly after 3:30 a.m. at Prestige Car Wash & Lube at 2306 Kennedy Blvd. W. An arrest affidavit indicates Bench used force to enter the business, activating an alarm. He then used an object to shatter out the front glass window in order to exit. 

He later admitted to an arresting office to breaking into the business, but wouldn't or couldn't explain why, according to the affidavit.

He was arrested on one felony count of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, and a misdemeanor count of criminal mischief. He was released Monday at 11:45 a.m. on an $8,000 surety bond, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office records.

A call to the business went unanswered late Monday morning. …

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UCF embarrasses USF, bounces Bulls from AAC tourney

USF's players gather in left field following their 12-0 loss Friday to UCF.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

USF's players gather in left field following their 12-0 loss Friday to UCF.

Roughly 16 hours after a controversial ninth-inning collapse against East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference's double-elimination tournament, USF returned to Spectrum Field presumably set for a re-boot.

It simply got booted instead.

UCF sophomore right-hander Chris Williams held the Bulls (41-17) hitless through nearly seven innings, and got a seven-run sixth inning from his offense in the Knights' 12-0 romp.

Fourth-seeded USF, which managed only two hits, learns its postseason destiny Monday during the NCAA selection show at noon on ESPN2.

"Frustrated by it, but we're in re-set mode at this point now," said Coach Mark Kingston, whose team squandered a two-run ninth-inning lead in Thursday night's 6-5 loss to No. 8-seeded East Carolina.

"The kids are gonna have two days off now to totally get away from it, and I told 'em 10 o'clock on Monday morning I want to see positive, energetic guys, 'cause I didn't quite see that today after (Thursday) night."

Williams issued a walk to Duke Stunkel Jr., the second batter he faced, and didn't allow another base runner until giving up a two-out walk to David Villar in the seventh. Coco Montes followed with a double off the right field wall for USF's first hit of the game.

Williams struck out seven and walked two over eight innings before being relieved by Andrew Rohloff, who worked a hitless ninth. In an eight-day span, Williams has allowed five hits in 15 innings against USF, including the Knights' 9-1 win in Orlando last Friday.

"I thought we would do better, but (Williams) was really good," Kingston said. "His fastball was up to 94 (mph)...and that, combined with us and where we were, it was a bad combination."

UCF sent 11 batters to the plate in the sixth, collecting five hits including No. 9 batter Logan Heiser's two-run home run. The onslaught began when shortstop Kevin Merrell committed a one-out error, followed by three consecutive hits that chased Bulls starter Peter Strzelecki (3-4), who had held UCF scoreless to that point.

"I don't know if it was mentally a hangover, but we looked a little tired, there was no doubt about it, so we just have to be able to handle it," Kingston said.

"That's why we're gonna give 'em the next 48 hours totally off just to get away from it. But I just thought our bats looked a tick slower than normal today."

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East Carolina rallies in 9th to stun USF

Immediately after one of the most excruciating defeats of his USF tenure Thursday night, Coach Mark Kingston was asked about a strike zone that most Bulls observers might swear got a bit more narrow in the ninth inning against East Carolina.

Through clenched teeth, Kingston remained composed.

"I thought some crazy things happened in the ninth that were out of our control," he said.

None any crazier than pinch-hitter Kirk Morgan's suicide squeeze bunt that scored Charlie Yorgen, clinching the Pirates' 6-5 victory against the No. 4-seeded Bulls (41-16) in an American Athletic Conference tournament winners-bracket game.

The Bulls have all of 16 hours to re-group. They return to Spectrum Field on Friday to face top-seeded UCF in an elimination contest.

"We'll bounce back," said Kingston, whose club lost for the first time in 33 games when leading after eight innings. "We'll be just fine."

All seemed fine entering the the ninth Thursday. The Bulls held a 5-3 lead attained with a three-run sixth, and steady reliever Joe Cavallaro was in a rhythm. …

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NCAA report: USF coach gave improper benefits to two recruits

Former USF men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua (center) was dismissed Jan. 3. His brother Oliver (right of Orlando) resigned amid an NCAA investigation last July.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Former USF men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua (center) was dismissed Jan. 3. His brother Oliver (right of Orlando) resigned amid an NCAA investigation last July.

Former USF men's basketball assistant Oliver Antigua provided impermissible benefits, including lodging at his own home, for two prospective student-athletes while they received on-campus tutoring, according to findings reported to the school by the NCAA.

The NCAA's Summary Disposition Report was released Thursday morning to the Tampa Bay Times following a public-records request.

It indicates Antigua, who resigned last July, provided the benefits (not totaling more than $511) while the recruits were being tutored at USF's College of Medicine by the sister-in-law of Gerald Gillion, then special assistant to former coach Orlando Antigua.

Additionally, Oliver Antigua initially provided false information to investigators before coming clean, the report says.

USF already has self-imposed three penalties: a $5,000 fine, withholding a coach from off-campus recruiting for 50 days (Oliver Antigua) and a reduction from 13 to 12 scholarships (last season). Whether the NCAA levels further penalties remains to be seen. …

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Brian Gregory: USF will play defense 'or die trying'

New USF men's basketball coach Brian Gregory has put the finishing touches on his 2017-18 roster.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

New USF men's basketball coach Brian Gregory has put the finishing touches on his 2017-18 roster.

During our hour-plus chat with Brian Gregory in his office last week, the new Bulls basketball coach still wasn't at liberty to discuss incoming graduate-transfers Terrence Samuel (Penn State), Payton Banks (Penn State) or Stephan Jiggetts (Fairleigh Dickinson).

But the school finally confirmed their signings on Wednesday, formally adding what is believed to be the final touches to the 2017-18 roster.

So now that everyone's on board, what can Bulls fans expect from this overhauled roster? On what will Gregory's inaugural team hang its figurative hat?

Still tough to say. Remember, Gregory spent most of his first two months feverishly trying to piece together a team. How this group jells over time, once he gets it on the floor together, remains to be seen. But Gregory does promise his constituents one thing.

"We're gonna figure out a way to defend and rebound, I can tell you that," Gregory said. "Or at least die trying."

While Gregory sifts through his guard options (prediction: Jiggetts is your opening night point guard), he'll probably build his frontcourt around 7-foot-2, 250-pound Serbian Nikola Scekic and 6-11 USC transfer Malik Martin, who sat out last season after two undistinguished years with the Trojans.

Incoming 6-8 freshman Alexis Yetna also could have an immediate impact, bringing the type of length and grit that Gregory helped harvest during his lengthy tenure as a Tom Izzo assistant at Michigan State.

"I think the offensive side of things will be a process and a progression as guys get a little more comfortable, not only in their roles but how we're playing," Gregory said. "So initially, obviously we have to be really committed on the defensive end and on the glass."

Does that signal a series of low-tempo grudge matches on the Sun Dome floor this winter? Not necessarily, Gregory said, though only one team -- his 2015-16 Georgia Tech squad -- has averaged more than 70 points a game in his 13 seasons as a head coach.

"The teams I've been associated with both as a head coach and an assistant coach, we always ran, but we never were 90, 95, 100 (points per game), because we played defense on the other end," Gregory said.

"So the other teams' possessions are longer. ... So the better you are defensively and rebounding, that obviously is the first phase of playing with pace."

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AAC tourney: Big hits propel USF past Tulane

USF sophomore Chris Chatfield's three-run home run helped propel the Bulls past Tulane, 7-6, in Tuesday's opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.

CHRIS URSO | Times

USF sophomore Chris Chatfield's three-run home run helped propel the Bulls past Tulane, 7-6, in Tuesday's opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.

With Tulane runners on first and second and two out in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday, USF's dugout watched as burly American Athletic Conference co-Player of the Year Hunter Williams' fly to left went deep.

Just not quite as deep as the Bulls' collective exhale, when left fielder Duke Stunkel Jr. snagged the ball to secure his team's 7-6 victory in opening round of the conference tournament at Spectrum Field.

Rallying twice from three-run deficits, the No. 4-seeded Bulls (41-15) got home runs from Spoto High alumnus Chris Chatfield and sophomore third baseman David Villar, and an ensemble effort from four pitchers to advance to Thursday's 7 p.m. winners' bracket game.

USF will face the winner of Tuesday's late contest between East Carolina and UCF.

"At the end of the day," USF coach Mark Kingston said, "we just got one more big hit."

USF trailed 3-0 with two out in the fourth when Chatfield sent a low Corey Merrill fastball over the center field fence, well beyond the 400-foot marker. It was Chatfield's sixth homer of the year, but first since April 28.

"I thought that sparked us," Kingston said. "It kind of gave us a little confidence that we could potentially get to (Merrill)."

Tulane re-gained the lead in the fifth on senior Jarret DeHart's three-run homer -- his 13th of the season -- off Bulls reliever Mark Savarese, who had replaced starter Phoenix Sanders (4 IP, 5 H, 3 R) an inning earlier.

But USF, which rallied to win 16 times in the regular season when trailing after six innings, again clawed back.

Villar's two-out solo blast in the fifth made it 6-4, and his two-out RBI-single in the sixth made it a one-run game. In the bottom of the eighth, SS Kevin Merrell led off with a single and tied the score when Stunkel followed with a double.

Stunkel scored the go-ahead run when Joe Genord's sharp grounder to third was misplayed by senior Hunter Hope.

“I think it was just stringing our hits together," said Stunkel, whose team totaled 10 hits. "Throughout the game, we were getting some hits. ... We were just stringing them together when it mattered, which is huge because we weren't able to do that early on."

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USF's Kevin Merrell, Luke Borders named 1st-team All-AAC

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell is one of two Bulls named to the coaches All-American Athletic Conference first team.

Photo provided by USF

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell is one of two Bulls named to the coaches All-American Athletic Conference first team.

USF SS Kevin Merrell and DH Luke Borders, the Bulls' two leading hitters, are first-team picks on the All-American Athletic Conference team selected by league coaches.

Three Bulls -- OF Duke Stunkel Jr., and right-handed pitchers Phoenix Sanders and Peter Strzelecki, made the second team. USF (40-15), the No. 4 seed in this week's conference tournament in Clearwater, was shut out of the individual awards.

Merrell, widely projected to be taken in the early rounds of next month's Major League Baseball Draft, enters Tuesday's tournament opener against Tulane hitting .387 with six home runs and 25 RBIs. He leads USF in average, stolen bases (18), on-base percentage (.468) and triples (four), and is tied with Borders for the lead in hits (74).

Borders (.344) has seven home runs and leads the team in runs (44) and RBIs (50). His run and RBI totals rank fifth and third in the league, respectively.

Stunkel (.343, team-best 14 doubles) hasn't committed an error this season. Strzelecki (3-3, 2.48 ERA), recorded the team's two longest outings this season, including a complete game in a 2-0 win at Connecticut two weekends ago. Sanders, Tuesday's starter, (5-2, 2.83), is tied for the team lead with 99 strikeouts.

The entire list of conference winners, along with the first and second teams, can be found here.

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Preseason magazines praise, poke USF

Street & Smith's 2017 college football preview heralds USF and quarterback Quinton Flowers as the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

Street & Smith's 2017 college football preview heralds USF and quarterback Quinton Flowers as the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.

The initial wave of college football preview magazines has crashed upon newsstands, spraying hype all over USF.

But the adoration is accompanied by some snark.

All three publications -- Athlon Sports, Lindy's and Street & Smith's -- have the Bulls ranked in their respective preseason top 25, and all project USF to win the American Athletic Conference. All three pick the Bulls to play in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day.

But beneath the glossy covers lies plenty for Bulls fans to get steamed about also.

In Athlon's breakdown of the Bulls, senior QB Quinton Flowers -- a potential Heisman Trophy candidate this fall -- is referred to as "a poor man's Lamar Jackson," referring to the '16 Heisman winner from Louisville.

The reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year (4,342 total yards, 42 TDs), Flowers is deemed a "dark horse" Heisman candidate among the nation's quarterbacks by Street & Smith's, and is listed among "others to watch" in the Heisman race by Athlon.

Lindy's doesn't list Flowers among its top 10 Heisman candidates.

Additionally, Athlon highlights this quote -- from an "opposing AAC assistant coach" -- about the Bulls: 

"They have real athletes in that program, and they can get them , but the school has to step up and look at UCF's level of commitment."

As all-conference recognition goes, the Bulls are well represented. Street & Smith's has Flowers and TE Mitchell Wilcox on its preseason All-AAC team; Athlon has five Bulls on its first team: Flowers, LB Auggie Sanchez, CB Deatrick Nichols, DT Deadrin Senat and PR D'Ernest Johnson.

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USF falls to UCF, drops to 4th seed in AAC tourney

USF entered Saturday's game against UCF with a shot at its first regular season conference title in 21 years, but exited it as the fourth seed in next week's American Athletic Conference tournament.

The Bulls' 3-2 loss, combined with Houston's 7-6 victory against Cincinnati, gave the Knights (38-18, 15-9) a share of the regular season crown and sent the No. 25 Bulls (40-15, 14-10) spiraling in the seedings. …

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UCF routs USF, sets up high-stakes Saturday

UCF collected 17 hits off four USF pitchers Friday night en route to a 9-1 rout of the No. 25 Bulls, setting up an intriguing final day of the American Athletic Conference regular season.

In all possible scenarios except one, the Bulls (40-14, 14-9) still can win the AAC regular season title -- and top seed in next week's conference tournament in Clearwater -- with a victory Saturday in Orlando.

The lone exception: the Bulls and Connecticut (31-22, 14-9) finishing in a tie for first. In that case, UConn gets the regular season title and No. 1 tournament seed by virtue of a series win against USF last weekend. The Huskies host East Carolina on Saturday.

"I just told the guys they scored nine runs tonight, and none of those get to carry over to tomorrow," said Bulls coach Mark Kingston, whose program never has won twice in the same season at UCF. …

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USF's Brian Gregory praises staff for re-loading roster

In a span of roughly four weeks, new USF men's basketball coach Brian Gregory and his staff replenished their decimated roster.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

In a span of roughly four weeks, new USF men's basketball coach Brian Gregory and his staff replenished their decimated roster.

During four sleep-deprived weeks of recruiting and evaluating, new USF men's coach Brian Gregory somehow landed nine recruits and one house.

At this stage, he's far more familiar with the specs and dimensions of his new guys than his new digs.

"The (west Tampa) house we're moving into next week, I've been to once," Gregory acknowledged Thursday. "My wife did all that."

In stunningly short order, Gregory and his staff managed to replenish a roster reduced to four scholarship players in the wake of a dreadful 2016-17 season resulting in the early-January dismissal of Coach Orlando Antigua.

The incoming class (listed here) comprises six players (three freshmen, three transfers), not counting three graduate transfers whom Gregory's still not at liberty to discuss. All except two are expected to be eligible for the 2017-18 season.

Gregory described it as four frenetic weeks of traveling, evaluating, phoning and caffeinating.

"It was non-stop. I mean, it was all day and all night on the phone," the native Chicago North Sider (and Cubs fan) said.

"There were times in there where we could get out, so now we're flying, driving, going to see as many of these kids as we could. ... So if we weren't on the phone or in the gym or watching film, then we were in the staff room going down our list and trying to put the guys in order in terms of priority list.

"The thing I'm comfortable with, in each one of those areas, those kids were our top priorities. So I feel good about that."

Though reticent to single out any signee, Gregory acknowledged being more than a little surprised at some of the players the Bulls were able to acquire. Seven-foot-2 Serbian Nikola Scekic, who played briefly at New Mexico, was fresh off a national title season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.

And Gregory -- a former longtime Michigan State staffer -- distinctly remembers a conversation with veteran Spartans assistant Dwayne Stephens about Bulls incoming freshman Alexis Yetna.

He said, 'That kid's a junkyard dog, man, he's like a Michigan State player,'" Gregory recalled.

"So when you add all those things up, yeah, you can get involved in guys, but to finish the job like that, that's where the staff just did an unbelievable job."

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Scott Frost: UCF better at 'almost every position'

UCF second-year coach Scott Frost was among the Knights dignitaries who appeared at a booster stop Tuesday at Whiskey Joe's on Rocky Point.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

UCF second-year coach Scott Frost was among the Knights dignitaries who appeared at a booster stop Tuesday at Whiskey Joe's on Rocky Point.

 

Before taking a dig or two at USF during his booster-tour stop Tuesday at Whiskey Joe's on Rocky Point, UCF second-year coach Scott Frost obliged us with a quick interview. Here are some excerpts: …

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USF in congested race for AAC baseball title

USF right-hander Phoenix Sanders and the Bulls head to UCF later this week tied atop the American Athletic Conference standings.

Photo provided by USF

USF right-hander Phoenix Sanders and the Bulls head to UCF later this week tied atop the American Athletic Conference standings.

Only five days remain in the regular season, but a logjam remains atop the American Athletic Conference standings.

Logjam? Who are we kiddding? It's a mess. More than a mess, a paradox: The end is in sight, but a lot of baseball remains, if you catch our drift.

Scenarios abound, and USF -- seeking the program's first conference title in 21 years -- finds itself smack in the middle of most of them. Because we couldn't locate a calculus professor to help break it all down, we turned to somebody who looks a little like one: USF baseball radio voice Mike Lefko (We kid).

With Lefko's assistance, we've determined the most plausible scenarios. Here goes:

* The Bulls and UCF have matching 13-8 conference records entering their three-game series in Orlando starting Thursday. If Houston drops two of three at home against Cincinnati and UConn loses its series to Memphis, the Bulls or the Knights win the regular season title.

* If USF and Houston finish tied, the Bulls win the conference title by virtue of winning two of three against the Cougars earlier this month.

* If USF and UConn finish tied, the Huskies win the conference by virtue of taking two of three from the Bulls last weekend.

* A three-way deadlock among the Bulls, Connecticut and Houston would force a tie-breaker formula: series record against the fourth-place team. If that fourth-place team is Tulane, that would eliminate USF, which dropped two of three in New Orleans earlier in the season (Houston took two of three from the Green Wave).

* In terms of conference tournament seeding, USF could head to Clearwater as high as the No. 1 seed or as low as the fifth. It's that congested at the top (check out the standings below).

American Athletic Conference standings
(Overall records in parentheses)
USF 13-8 (39-12)
UCF 13-8 (36-16)
Houston 13-8 (33-18)
UConn 12-9 (29-21)
Tulane 11-10 (24-28)
Cincinnati 9-12 (27-25)
Memphis 7-14 (27-25)
East Carolina 6-15 (27-25)

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AAC extends Mike Aresco's contract

Mike Aresco, the only commissioner in the American Athletic Conference's brief history, will stay on board through June 2022.

AP photo

Mike Aresco, the only commissioner in the American Athletic Conference's brief history, will stay on board through June 2022.

The American Athletic Conference has extended the contract of Mike Aresco, the 4-year-old league's only commissioner, through June 2022.

Widely considered the nation's premier Group of Five conference, Aresco has unabashedly campaigned for The American to join the Power Five stratosphere, making that objective the cornerstone of the league's ambitious strategic plan. A hashtag (#AmericanPow6r) even has been unleashed.

“Mike is a strong commissioner who is respected by the presidents and institutions within the conference," Connecticut president Susan Herbst, chair of the AAC board of directors, said in a statement. "It is important for The American to have excellent, consistent leadership and that is what Mike provides.”

The last commissioner of the old Big East, Aresco remained on board when that conference legally transitioned to the AAC.

During his watch, the league has added Navy in football, Wichita State in basketball, and three other schools (East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa) in all sports. He also implemented an AAC football title game, and was instrumental in securing a New Year's bowl berth for the highest-ranked team in the Group of Five.

On his watch, the AAC has produced a Fiesta Bowl champion (UCF), Peach Bowl winner (Houston) and men's hoops national champ (UConn). Meantime, the UConn women won national titles the first three years of the conference's existence.  

"I am extremely proud of the progress that this conference has made," Aresco said.

"Our presidents and athletic directors have made the commitment necessary for us to become a Power Six conference and have, in a difficult environment, provided the vision and resources that have enabled our student-athletes and coaches to compete at the highest level."

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