TAMPA — The thing about being reborn is you still have to learn to walk.
USF men’s basketball, directed by second-year coach Brian Gregory, is making real strides, as evidenced by its 18-10 turnaround season, up from 22 losses. There is no way this hasn’t been a feel-good year for the Bulls.
But they’re not there yet.
Of course, it had to be dreaded UCF to drill it into USF’s head. Orlando’s hometown college basketball team, older, quicker and better, pulled away in the second half to beat the Bulls, 75-63, taking the air out of a crowd of 7,231, the largest turnout at Yuengling Center since opening night in 2012 after the building was renovated.
Renovations continue at USF, steadily, if not spectacularly. But Wednesday’s game was a reminder, meted out by a UCF team that is 20-6 and NCAA Tournament-bound, an experienced, balanced attack, and featuring 7-foot-6 senior center and conversation piece Tacko Fall, who hails from the greater Orlando metroplex (Senegal) and who is the tallest college basketball player in the United States. Ball might have a future in the NBA, unless developers tear him down to put up condominiums.
USF? The Bulls were never an NCAA Tournament team. And Wednesday probably sank any NIT shot. USF has lost four of its past five, including at UCF, a rough overtime loss in Tampa to Temple and a loss at last Saturday at No. 8 Houston. Maybe the Bulls can jump into the College Basketball Invitational or whatever that is.
Yes, there has been progress. When UCF coach Johnny Dawkins complimented Gregory, it wasn’t like when coaches used to praise former USF coach Orlando Antigua after they beat the Bulls’ brains in. Dawkins, in his third year at UCF, meant it. And he meant it when he talked about the crowd. Dawkins isn’t confusing USF-UCF with his playing days in the middle of Duke-North Carolina, but you get the idea.
“That’s what a rival game is going to be about,” Dawkins said. “Guys were a little chippy, a little feisty out there, in a good way. That’s what it should be like.”
It took long enough to build a USF-UCF football rivalry, so we shouldn’t expect a basketball miracle. And there was a definite helpless quality to USF trying to stop Fall, who finished with 18 points and who might lead the planet in most rebounds while standing on his size 22 feet.
There’s no shame in that for USF, which can secure a 20-win season with two wins in its final three conference games. This time last year, the Bulls were running guys onto the floor who didn’t look like they belonged. No more. That’s progress.
“If our team three months ago would have played this team tonight, we would have not been able to compete with them,” Gregory said.
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But USF isn’t there yet. And USF-UCF basketball isn’t a rivalry yet. You knew it near the end of the game, as USF fans razzed a sizable UCF contingent with “LSU! LSU!” for the team that ended UCF’s 25-game win streak in the Fiesta Bowl. UCF fans could have fired back with USF’s last loss, or its last six in a row to end 2018, for that matter, but there was only a minute left, not enough time.
“Where both programs are heading, you’re in for some exciting basketball,” Dawkins said.
“We showed glimpses of where we can get to and what kind of environment we can have here,” Gregory said.
He repeated: there’s a long way to go.
“One, it’s a daily process. Two, it’s slow. And three, it’s hard. Have we made dramatic improvements? Yes. But we’re not quite good enough to beat those teams. We can compete with them, but we’re not quite good enough to beat them. Yet.”
At least “yet” seems a little closer.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) &31-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.