Dick Vitale, the college basketball analyst for ESPN, lives in Sarasota. Each week he jets around the nation calling games involving the best teams in the country, such as North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Michigan State.
Certainly, the USF Bulls aren't ready to have their name thrown around with the Tar Heels, Jayhawks, Blue Devils and Spartans, but suddenly Vitale doesn't have to take a plane to see a good team. He can drive an hour up Interstate 75 and see the Bulls, who have knocked off two ranked teams in the past week.
First, USF upset No. 17 Pitt on Sunday. Then came the major shocker: a 72-64 victory at seventh-ranked Georgetown on Wednesday. USF coach Stan Heath called it "the biggest win in school history.''
Led by Dominique Jones, who has averaged 35 points in the past four games, the Bulls are 15-7 overall and 5-5 in the mighty Big East.
Vitale spoke Thursday to the St. Petersburg Times about what USF has done this season, especially the victory against Georgetown, and where it might go from here.
What are your thoughts on USF's victory against Georgetown?
It's a statement victory for Stan Heath and that program. To go on the road at Georgetown right after Georgetown dominated Duke (on Saturday) and go toe-to-toe and beat Georgetown is very, very impressive. And you just know that (Georgetown coach) John Thompson III had his team ready to play. It wasn't like USF caught Georgetown off-guard. They came in with a reputation after beating Seton Hall (Jan. 28) and Pittsburgh. But a victory like this really gives a program some respect.
What does a victory like this mean for the program?
Well, now the road gets tough for USF. Now they're going to get everybody's best hit. Now the work starts. You're not going to catch anyone by surprise now. Look, I was a coach. I know how these things work. Every coach in the Big East is posting the game story in the locker room and telling his team to watch out for South Florida. Now they have to be ready to play every time out.
How has Stan Heath done as coach?
He's turned the corner now. What a great hire by (athletic director) Doug Woolard. But let's not get too carried away here. Let's be honest. USF's work is just starting. If I'm Stan Heath, (Thursday) morning I'm going into Doug Woolard's office and telling him, "We need to upgrade everything. We need better facilities. We need to improve everything. If we're going to compete with the Georgetowns and Syracuses and Connecticuts and Villanovas and so on, we need major upgrades on our facilities." You're just not going to compete in a conference like the Big East without it. Stan Heath has one of the toughest jobs in the country.
Didn't you once call the USF job the toughest in the country?
I did. Look, you're in the best conference in the nation. From top to bottom, the Big East is the best conference in the country. For every big-time player out there, maybe — maybe — you get one, and Syracuse is getting two, UConn is getting two. It's a tough sell to get kids to come to USF.
Say you're a star high school player. Well, when Duke comes in to recruit you and North Carolina, you are like in awe of those programs. But if I'm USF, I have to preach and preach and preach just to get you to lift your head off the table. USF just doesn't have the tradition yet. And basketball still is not treated like football in the state of Florida. It was great when the Gators and Billy Donovan won back-to-back national titles, but even after that, football is still on another level here in Florida.
What are your thoughts on Dominique Jones?
I just tweeted on Twitter that he's the hottest player in the country right now. Not only is he scoring, but he's leading them to wins. To put up 140 points in the last four games against Big East competition is incredible. You're playing heavyweights. This is the Big East! In all four games, almost every time USF needed a big basket, every time they were in a tough situation, he was the one scoring. It's one thing to score a lot of points. It's another to score when your team needs a basket.
Did you see this coming from him?
No way, not at this level. I saw a lot of potential there, but to score like this? No one saw that coming. He understands quality shots more than the quantity of shots. Anybody can just come down and shoot, but Dominique Jones understands the value of each possession, and he takes quality shots.
Can this team finish in the top eight of the Big East? Can it make the NCAA Tournament?
I don't know yet. It still isn't going to be easy. Let's not be under any false illusions here. They've had a couple of nice wins, but it's just a couple of wins, you know? They're going to get (Gus) Gilchrist back here soon (from injury), and that will help. They're doing some good things, but now they have to continue to play like that and maybe even play better because they're not a sleeper anymore. Dominique Jones has a target on him now, and people will be ready to play South Florida from now on. But it's great to see USF winning big games.