Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Sports

Sweet success of USF basketball is a miracle

NASHVILLE — The first ingredient of a miracle is simple. First, there has to be widespread hopelessness before it happens.

Often, there also is despair. And anguish. And gloom. If you look hard enough, you may find a few locusts.

Throw in a few basketballs clanking off a few rims, and you might as well be talking about the past 20 years of USF basketball. You know, Team Pestilence. For two decades, no team in America was easier to ignore. For two decades, the Bulls wandered aimlessly — and shot the same way — from gym to gym without success.

They were the easiest team in the country to ignore. There was no tradition and no history, no recruits and no chance. The Bulls were the smallest kids on the toughest block in college basketball.

Look at them now, beaming and bouncing across the arena floor. They are alive in the NCAA Tournament, which has usually been out of their reach. They have been successful in the Big East, where the competition has usually been over their heads. They are coming off the biggest win in their history on a stage that once would have seemed beyond their dreams.

Call it the Miracle of Fowler Avenue.

For heaven's sake, the meek have inherited the gym.

Go ahead, smile. These are the sweetest moments in the program's history. At this point, what people need to realize is just how improbable this turnaround has been. You can throw six darts through a darkened room and have a better chance to puncture the winning numbers out of a Lotto card on the other side.

For other teams, in other towns, none of this might seem that impressive. After all, 68 teams make this tournament and 34 of them win a game. Frankly, the Cal team the Bulls beat probably couldn't have handled five guys from the pep band.

Ah, but to appreciate the Bulls, you need to remember the odds they beat to get here. You need to notice a roster filled with vagabond players seeking second chances. You need to acknowledge one of the finest coaching jobs in the nation. You need to remember the muscle of the Big East. You need to know how far this team has come.

Start with Stan Heath, the coach who convinced his team that success was possible. In college basketball, most coaches turn programs around in one of three ways. One, they find a great player and follow him to success. Two, they recruit well and grow their own players until they are hardened seniors. Three, they play in a smaller conference where night-in and night-out the competition isn't as fierce.

Heath didn't do any of that. He found out early that the best players he could get were transfers, and he put out a welcome mat. Ron Anderson Jr. started at Kansas State. Victor Rudd was at Arizona State. Augustus Gilchrist originally signed with Virginia Tech and then transferred to Maryland before landing at USF. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick signed with Georgia Southern. Hugh Robertson, Jawanza Poland and Blake Nash all came from junior college. In other words, success came from everywhere.

"It just worked out that way," Heath said. "In our league, we've got to compete against schools that get McDonald's All-Americans and top 50 players. We haven't been able to grab that guy. So we have to find a way to compete against that level. The most talented guys we could get were transfers.

"It's like 'why are you leaving? What's the situation? What are your academics like. What is your character like?' If it's a good fit, it's a good fit. Gilchrist has already graduated, and Ron Anderson will be graduating soon."

Along the way, Heath has taken all the loose puzzle pieces and assembled them into a team that endured the Big East. No, the league wasn't as good as usual this year. But it's still a beast. It's still the league where every other team but USF has reached the Final Four. It's still a league where the Bulls had finished higher than 14th only one time before this year.

Yet, Heath has taken these Shot­less Wonders — until Wednesday's game against Cal — and convinced them they could win with this defense-first blueprint. Along the way, he has changed the perception of his program. From here, recruiting should be easier. From here, standards should be higher.

The thing is, Heath's a second-chancer himself. Five years ago, he was the Arkansas coach, and his team won 20 games, and it reached the NCAAs. And Heath was fired.

"When it first happens, it stings and you do have a chip on your shoulder, you have that edge. You really do, because you feel like the rug was pulled out from under you. But at some point, you move on. I've fallen in love with USF. I've fallen in love with Tampa.

"My motivation is we're creating history. We're building something special, something that hasn't been done before. I feel very proud to be part of that."

Why not? His team has finally given USF basketball fans a reason to smile. He has returned hope. He has made dreaming possible again.

When it comes to miracles, that's a pretty good start.

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