TAMPA — They gravitated to the courtside seats and lower rows, not sure what they were about to witness.
These few dozen USF basketball boosters had been lured to the Sun Dome on Thursday night by invitation. Joining them were current players, who sat in courtside chairs on the opposite side of the floor. Bulls coaches loitered near the bench.
Then, familiar figures emerged from an arena tunnel, and the cork suddenly was popped on a human time capsule.
Nostalgia, glory and camaraderie spilled out. So, too, did Toarlyn Fitzpatrick's silky jumper, Anthony Collins' dexterous handles, Ron Anderson Jr.'s outlet throws. All had been preserved.
"It's kind of amazing," Fitzpatrick said.
The 2012 Bulls — or at least a big chunk of their bracket-busting nucleus — were back. And not for one night only.
After Thursday's meet and greet comes survive and advance. Five years after their mesmerizing NCAA Tournament run ended just shy of the Sweet 16, several of the 2012 Bulls and a few of their more grizzled peers are trying to replicate that magic in The Basketball Tournament.
The 64-team, single-elimination event in its fourth year comes with a $2 million winner-take-all prize. Teams consist primarily of former collegians and overseas pros, many from the same school or geographic region. Several former NBA players are participating. Greg Oden, the NBA's 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick, is on a team made up mostly of former Ohio State players. Boeheim's Army, featuring several former Syracuse players — including All-ACC first-teamer C.J. Fair and McDonald's All-American Eric Devendorf — also is entered.
All 10 guys on the Tampa Bulls roster — many of them play professionally overseas — played for USF. Half were members of the '12 squad that finished 22-14 and recorded the school's only two NCAA Tournament victories.
The rest of the roster includes guard Dominique Jones — the No. 5 scorer in school history and a veteran of 80 games with the Dallas Mavericks — and former Robinson High star Terrence Leather. Anthony Brammer and Mike Brown, video assistants for then-USF coach Stan Heath in 2012, serve as coach and general manager, respectively.
"Some people's games grew; some people have gotten older. The good thing about it is, everyone knows their role," said Collins, a freshman point guard on the 2012 team who found his offensive groove (averaging 14 points per game) in three NCAA Tournament games.
"This is not about anything selfish like a professional contract. It doesn't matter who scores 40 points. Our main objective is to win at the end of the day. That's what it's all about, and everybody knows that."
Such was the prevailing sentiment a half-decade ago. Buoyed by selflessness and a suffocating defense, the '12 Bulls won 12 Big East games — equaling USF's combined league win total of the previous two seasons — to squeak into the 68-team NCAA field as an at-large pick.
The regular season's highlight: a 58-51 triumph at Louisville on senior night. It was one of 26 games in which USF allowed fewer than 60 points.
"That was the game that really got us into the NCAA Tournament," Heath, now a Boston College assistant, said by phone Thursday. "They were very feisty; they were tough. Everything was a battle, and we actually kind of skewed practice to where we brought out the competition level."
Yet the competition ended at scoring acclaim. Offensively, no one averaged in double figures, but five averaged between 8 and 9.5 points.
"As much as they were incredible on the defensive end, they really were some talented offensive players," Heath said. "But they bought into what we needed to do to be successful."
It's that type of balance and continuity that Fitzpatrick and Anderson were trying to rekindle when they brainstormed the idea with Brown last year about forming a squad for The Basketball Tournament. The group practiced all week in Tampa and was set to fly out Friday for today's 10:45 a.m. opener against Seven City Grain (Va.) in Charlotte, N.C.
"They wanted the core of guys from that ('12) team," Brammer said. "All these guys have played together, played open gyms together, but just to jump-start that chemistry again, it's been getting better and better."
And it could parlay into one more shining moment.
"That's a really talented team," Heath said. "The guy we really don't talk about is Dominique Jones, who's arguably one of the most talented players to come through (USF). You add those guys with that mentality, and now you've got a prolific scorer — anything can happen with that group."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.