The toughest job in town

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times USF head coach Brian Gregory runs offensive drills during practice at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida on Monday, November 6, 2017.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times USF head coach Brian Gregory runs offensive drills during practice at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida on Monday, November 6, 2017.
Published January 4 2018
Updated January 4 2018

Nobody goes into the Sun Dome and beats East Carolina.

The man with the toughest sports job in Tampa Bay had just watched his team lose to possibly the one team it can beat in its conference. The song remains the same for USF men's basketball, the Unwatch-a-Bulls, and it will be that way for a while, even under its likable, earnest and grinding new coach, Brian Gregory.

"Disappointed, but obviously not discouraged," Gregory said.

The 7-9 Bulls lost by 40 points at SMU on New Year's Eve. Sunday, they visit ninth-ranked Wichita State, a newcomer to the American Athletic Conference but already a monster.

But Wednesday offered a shaft of light – a matchup at the Sun Dome against fellow AAC bottom dweller ECU, which also was 0-2 in conference play.

A great opportunity. A sign of hope.

USF lost, 67-65. Led by eight in the second half, but lost. Had a chance to tie it at the end of the game, but lost. The Bulls fell to 0-3 in the AAC. It raised a question people have been asking since Early Man first asked for the rock: If you can't beat East Carolina, who can you beat?

Wednesday, in fact, might have been the Bulls' last best chance to win a game the rest of this season.

Will USF men's basketball ever change?


"It's early, but yeah, it was an important game, an opportunity to bounce back after two tough losses," Gregory said. "Every game is important. For us, it's going to be a process of understanding where we're at and what we need to do to get better.

"This is the first year. Know what I mean? We can't look down and say where's the first win? We need to just take it one day at a time in terms of practice, and getting better, get the young guys better, get the old guys better."

Gregory took over the program without illusions. The Orlando Antigua fiasco was not an overnight fling, and it will take time to recover. USF is 11-61 in conference play since joining the AAC in 2013-14 – 50 games under .500. You can't be that bad if you try.

The Bulls are trying. Their coach is trying. Wednesday night, they tried before a sparse gathering of 2,148 at the Sun Dome. The song remains the same. All USF really needs is players, wins and fans.

I'm not going to mention the players. They can't help who they are or where they are. I'm not going to tell Gregory to bring their dental records to Wichita State. Everyone knows this is going to be an extraordinarily long season.

It says something that a win Wednesday would have given USF eight wins – one more than last season. It's a bad deal out on Fowler Avenue. It's not getting any better tomorrow. Gregory has his marching orders, and he likes his job and his kids, but this is going to be one long march. The kind where East Carolina is a big game.

"I'm never a guy who looks at the schedule and says 'boy, we've got to get this one,' or anything like that," Gregory said. "For us, it's going out there competing every night. We've got to play hard every single play."

USF went 1-17 in the AAC last season. This season doesn't feel any different.

"Our guys want it bad," Gregory said. "They want to be successful. They know where the program is at. They want to change it. They know it's not going to be a complete flip of the script when it comes to the change. They know it's going to be an incremental change and to set the future tone for this program.

"Am I disappointed? Yes. But knowing what we've faced this year, there's no discouragement at all. There's a big difference between the two."

It's the first year.

Know what he means?

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