The preseason polls are out and University of Tampa men's basketball never looked better. The Spartans rated two seconds and a fifth in three preseason magazine polls that hit the newsstands last week.
The NCAA-licensed preview magazine, On the Road to the Final Four, rated UT No. 2 in Division II basketball, behind defending champion Kentucky Wesleyan. Tampa's chief Sunshine State Conference foes, Florida Tech and Florida Southern, ranked 11th and 17th respectively. Basketball Digest also picked the Spartans second behind Kentucky Wesleyan. FIT ranked fourth in that poll.
Tampa was selected the No. 5 Division II team by Street & Smith's. (Kentucky Wesleyan, which returns eight players and has a 7-foot newcomer at center, again earned the top spot.)
Tampa coach Richard Schmidt doesn't put a lot of stock in preseason polls. "They don't mean anything except that you've got a good, solid program," said Tampa's eighth-year coach. "It doesn't tell you you're going to win a national championship. To do that, you've got to get a few breaks. Things have to fall into place. But we have a lot to be proud of."
UT's Bryan Williams was one of two Division II players on Street & Smith's "Super 5" team of top small college players. Williams last season earned All-America honors from USA Today/Basketball Gazette (first team), the National Association of Basketball Coaches (second team) and Basketball Times (third team).
The 6-foot-5 senior swingman from Lake Worth pulled a groin muscle and didn't play ball for a month just before practice began a week ago, but he said he is now almost fully recovered.
The Spartans were conspicuously absent from the 1989 preseason polls, then rose to the No. 1 ranking by the end of the regular season, only to post a disappointing 1-3 record in post-season play.
The players want to validate last year's top ranking and this year's high expectations with a superior performance.
"I think last year we were out of shape at the end of the year," said senior guard Kevin Starnes, a Gaither product and one of the team's co-captains. "This year we came into practice in better shape."
With three starters and three top reserves returning from last year as well as several new players who could make an impact, the Spartans hope to earn their eighth consecutive berth in the NCAA tournament.
"The new guys could be the determining factor," Starnes said. "But they can't play like freshman. They've got to step and play like experienced players."
UT's season begins at home Nov. 19 against Seattle Pacific.
As close as they'll get: When the Spartans conducted intra-squad scrimmages at the new Tampa Convention Center over the weekend, they got about as close to a Division I opponent as they have in almost two years.
The University of South Florida loaned its portable basketball floor to the convention center during its grand opening, marking the first time the Spartans have played on a Division I floor _ albeit without a Division I opponent _ since they met the USF on the same floor at the Sun Dome in 1988.
Since then, UT has been unable to schedule a game against a Division I team, even the Bulls. Victories by Tampa in past seasons over Division I schools North Carolina State, Oregon and USF make them an unattractive opponent.
Roster not set: Thomas Norton, a 6-3 sophomore walk-on from Weston, Mass., who appeared in five games last season and scored six points, has left the team, Schmidt said, cutting the practice roster to 14. Red-shirt freshman Rod Brooks hopes to become academically eligible in December, and Mike Rouse, a sophomore transfer from Florida College, is awaiting word on the transfer of his academic credits before he can begin practicing. Rouse is a 6-1 point guard whom Schmidt said is vital to the team's success.
Setback for women: The women's basketball team began practice last week with only nine players and the news that one of their top returnees could miss the season.
Women's coach Tom Mosca said Kristi Izor, a 5-10 sophomore forward from Eaton, Ohio, who started 22 games as a freshman, suffered a knee injury and would be out at least two months. Izor was second on the team in scoring with 9.8 points per game and third in rebounding (4.2 average).
Izor said Saturday that a doctor would probably examine the knee this week. She may become a medical redshirt and miss the entire season. But since she expects to graduate on time, she may join the team in time for conference play if the knee heals.
"The loss of Izor is big," Mosca said. "She's a stable player in terms of everything happening on the floor. Now Kelley Grider (a 5-10 junior from Winter Park) is going to have to step in there."
Mosca is excited about entering his second year as coach. A conference title is not out of reach, he said. Tampa finished third in the SSC last year with a 7-5 mark. Though there are no seniors on the squad, the Lady Spartans return four starters. Top newcomers are freshmen Kristi Thomas (a high school All-America from Gallipolis, Ohio) and Kim Bagozzi (Liverpool, N.Y.).
Can't keep her down: Mosca is also without his leading scorer and rebounder from last year, junior Kim Dix of Armwood High. But at least he was prepared for her absence. Dix must first complete the volleyball season, where she is second on the team in kills with 302.
Dix turned a rough week into a triumphant one last week. She landed in the hospital with neck injuries Monday after a car she was riding in was rear-ended. Then she caught the flu. The injury and illness forced her to miss two matches, but she returned to action Friday and earned all-tournament honors in the six-team Tampa Invitational.
Sophomore Luanne Baldwin (Chamberlain) led the Spartans with 101 kills over the weekend and was named tournament MVP. The Spartans, who dropped out of the NCAA's top 20 poll for the first time this season last week, swept five matches to win the tournament and improve to 21-6.
UT travels to Stetson Tuesday and then is host to undefeated and No. 7-ranked Florida Southern Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Mocs defeated the Spartans 15-5, 15-12, 17-15 on Sept. 27.
"If we could beat Southern, it would vault us into the top 15," said UT coach Chris Catanach. "We're struggling right now though. It's like we're riding a roller coaster. We had to come from behind to beat St. Joseph's. They showed real guts to do that. Basically they were faced with blowing their season and they put it together when they had to."
Soccer set for showdown: The No. 11-ranked UT soccer team passed its final test Saturday in preparation for Friday's match against No. 3 Florida Tech by defeating Rollins 3-1 Saturday night.
Defender Nicholas Friedrickson scored his fifth goal of the season, second-best on the team, and Mike Heald (Bloomingdale) and Jorgen Aldolfsson each added their first goals of the season in the second half. Tampa moved to 10-2-1 overall and 4-0 in the SSC.
FIT is 12-3 and 3-0. Friday's winner has the inside track for the conference title and its automatic NCAA berth.
UT coach Tom Fitzgerald said he will have everyone healthy for the Florida Tech game. Freshman Adrian Bush (Hillsborough), the team's top scorer with 10 goals, sat out the first half of the Rollins game with a sore back, and midfielder Mac Wilson missed the game with a broken nose. Both will be ready for FIT.
"I hope the injuries are behind us now," Fitzgerald said after Saturday's game. "We played with only one senior on the field and without Adrian and Mac and won. This was probably the best game we've had all year."