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USF hoops up a creek in Big East

Today, they are congratulating one another.

And he is working.

Today, they are celebrating their good fortune.

And he should be worrying.

Today, at last, they have stepped out of the shadows.

And he is in danger of being run over.

These are the days of wonder at South Florida. An athletic program without excessive funds and without a serious history has been granted relevance. The Big East Conference has called and most of USF is giddy with possibilities.

Think of the exposure. Imagine the rise in stature. Visualize the big-name coaches, the high-profile athletes, the rabid crowds.

And then consider Robert McCullum.

USF recently hired McCullum as its basketball coach and suggested he might want to build a conference contender. Back then, it seemed he had been thrown in the deep end without flippers. Now, they've gone and added sharks.

"I have no apprehension about it at all," McCullum said. "It's extremely challenging, but I like challenges. And I say that with all sincerity."

Heck yes, the Big East invitation is terrific news for South Florida. Recruits will be easier to find. Boosters should be more eager to spend. Growth now should be expected instead of simply desired.

The football team can actually dream of a national title. The baseball, volleyball and track teams will benefit from the competition.

And the basketball team? It's got some noogies coming.

This is not malice speaking. This is concern. The Big East is a step forward in other sports. In basketball, it is a leap across a moat.

It can be argued, without hyperbole, the new-look Big East is the greatest basketball league ever assembled. Fifteen of the 16 teams have a Final Four in their past. (New USF slogan: We stand alone!) Five of last year's Sweet 16 participants call the Big East home and two were in the Final Four.

"On the basketball side, those of you who know me, I'd never say we're the best," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "But we're clearly as good as anybody, any conference that's been put together."

Not to say USF is out of place in this neighborhood, but the other Big East teams have combined for 331 NCAA appearances and have won 406 tournament games. USF has gone more than a decade since the last of its two NCAA bids, and its next tournament victory will be its first.

You get the feeling the Bulls are like skinny 12-year-olds at the Little League World Series who look across the field and see a 210-pound pitcher with a 5 o'clock shadow and Carmen Electra on the handle bars of his 10-speed.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful opportunity," McCullum said.

And here's the crazy thing:

McCullum is right.

This move will benefit the Bulls in the long run. Heck, it'll benefit them in the short term, too, although it'll be difficult to see through the mayhem.

Already, McCullum has changed his expectations. When it became apparent USF was a serious Big East suitor, McCullum backed off on some recruits. He figured, once the move became official, he could be more selective.

McCullum no longer has to sell USF on its own. Now he can push the school as part of a larger picture. The Big East attracts television. It attracts NBA scouts. It has legendary coaches, tradition-rich schools and big crowds.

"From a recruiting standpoint, I certainly trust that we'll see kids who are more attracted to our program, kids that might have been reluctant to look our way in the past," McCullum said. "They might have had some interest in us, but we might not have been in their final 2-3 choices. Now they'll look at us differently. The Big East puts us in elite company."

McCullum has two seasons to get the Bulls prepared. Two seasons to find recruits, two seasons to raise a program's bar.

He said he expects to be competitive by 2005-06 and improve from there. On the adjective scale, this lands somewhere between optimistic and hysterical.

I'm sure McCullum has a wonderful blueprint for success, but he's talking about being competitive immediately in the Big East with a program that was 49-75 in Conference USA.

If you're looking for a more realistic model to follow, consider Miami. In 1991-92, their first season in the Big East, the 'Canes went 1-17 in league play. Two years later, they were 0-18.

Yet, as McCullum suggests will happen at USF, the quality of recruits steadily grew. By their eighth season, the Hurricanes were 15-3.

Is this possible at USF?

Honestly, it is hard to imagine today.

But think about it again tomorrow. And maybe the morning after that.

Because of this move, somewhere in USF's future, there are better days.

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