Sunday, May 27, 2018
Sports

USF Bulls overcome doubts, relish spot in NCAA tournament

TAMPA

The team had been lost forever. Why, then, were the final moments so difficult?

This was agony. This was torture. It was hard to watch, harder to hear. With every moment that passed, with every slot that was filled, the tension built and the stomachs tightened. Success was still possible, but increasingly, failure was a possibility.

In other words, yeah, it was like watching the USF team play basketball.

How else would you think they would finally get into the NCAA Tournament?

This was painful. This was eternal. Everyone was aware it had been 20 years since the USF team had been in the NCAA Tournament, but for heaven's sake, it felt as if USF had spent most of that time cramped in the men's film room in the USF Muma Center. The entire South bracket was revealed, and USF was not among the teams. The West teams were revealed, and USF was not among them. The East was announced, and still no USF.

Thirty six minutes passed.

Fifty-eight teams were announced.

And then they were in, and like every shot of every team you have seen over the years, the players had risen and the coach was looking for someone to swap palms with and everyone was smiling over newfound acceptance. The difference is this year, finally, it was this USF team of dreamers. After all this time, they were once again a team that mattered.

For 7,303 days, they had been just another team in whatever league they happened to be in. There had been so many lost games, so many missed baskets, and so many ignored seasons. When it came to basketball, the team didn't stand a chance. It didn't matter who played, and it didn't matter who coached. To many, USF was a team that was in over its head, and in the Big East, it didn't stand a chance.

You have to understand all of this, the years when USF didn't even qualify for its conference tournament, the years of seven wins, to understand just how big this achievement was. Some teams might scoff at being among the NCAA's First Four games. Not USF.

"I just wanted to make the field," Heath said.

Oh, there was doubt. The more you read from the bracketologists (a fancy word for "guessers"), the more you heard about Drexel and Washington and Seton Hall, the more you wondered if USF would make it into the field. On every show, the Bulls seemed to be one of the teams that the loudest voices were discussing. They didn't beat enough good teams. The Big East was down. Blah, blah, blah. And furthermore, blah.

And so, USF wondered through BYU and Iona and the rest of the bid-stealers. Would those final nightmarish moments against Notre Dame come back to haunt them? Would the early non-conference failures catch up to them? No Big East team had ever had 12 league victories dismissed so quickly. Would the committee do the same?

"I didn't know," Heath said. "You never know. When you're one of those last group of teams getting in, it's really splitting hairs. You don't know what the small thing is that puts you ahead of another team. I felt we had done quite a bit.

"It would have been difficult to swallow if we hadn't gotten in. We accomplished quite a bit. But if we didn't get in, it would have been our fault. We had things in our hands that we let get away. I wouldn't have blamed anyone, because we had an opportunity to make our resume better."

Still, the Bulls won 12 conference games (another in the tournament), and no Big East team had ever been left out with that many. Consider this: The Bulls were picked 14th in their own conference, which means they beat a lot of teams they weren't supposed to beat this year.

Much of this, of course, comes back to Heath. When he first arrived on campus, you didn't know if you should congratulate him or console him. Considering the league, considering the lack of tradition, this was perhaps the toughest job in America.

"I felt we could turn it around, or I wouldn't have taken the job," Heath said. "I knew it was a difficult challenge. But I saw us as a team that could get to the NCAA Tournament. I didn't know how long it would take. But I never would have come here if I thought we were just going to get beat up every year."

Through stubbornness, through resiliency, through scoring droughts so long you wondered if the basket had been nailed shut, this team has made it.

So, do you think USF will have to wait for another 20 years?

"No way," Heath said. "No, no, no, no. This is just one step in the right direction. We're building something. We're not satisfied with where we are. We see a bright future in front of us."

For Heath, for USF, the plan is to start toward that future Wednesday night in Dayton.

Now that they're in, after all, they might as well win.

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