Unable to lure enough elite high school talent to South Florida to complement emerging star Dominique Jones, Bulls coach Stan Heath faced a difficult dilemma as he hit the recruiting trail the past couple years.
Should he continue to build the program by seeking under-the-radar gems in the high school ranks? Or should he take a few calculated risks on talented but well-traveled transfers whose pasts were too checkered for traditional powers to give a second chance?
That Heath went with the latter option has been a double-edged sword for suddenly surging South Florida.
On the one hand, one Bulls transfer was arrested twice and briefly kicked off the team during the summer, another was arrested once and suspended six games this season for a disciplinary issue and a third reportedly is at the center of an NCAA investigation.
On the other hand, South Florida is on the cusp of contending for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1992 after winning its fourth consecutive Big East game tonight by toppling heavily favored Georgetown, 72-64, on the road.
Heath made no apologies for the manner in which he built the program when reached by phone on Tuesday morning.
"I just felt we had to pursue all avenues," he said. "We had to find players that could compete at the highest level because taking somebody that wasn't at that level wouldn't get us where we wanted to be. And I didn't take high risks. I had to research, find out the reasons the young men transferred and figure out if they were worthy of a second chance."
While the victories over Providence, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh were stepping stones for South Florida (15-7, 5-5), it's this win over Georgetown that will truly make the rest of the league take notice.
After all, this was a Hoyas team ranked eighth in the nation and coming off a convincing victory over ACC-leading Duke. And for that matter, this was a South Florida team that was 11-57 in Big East play the past four years entering this season.
Playing a starring role for South Florida once again was Jones, who scored 22 of his game-high 29 points in the second half to rally the Bulls from a nine-point halftime deficit. The 6-foot-4 combo guard led the nation in scoring in January at a ridiculous 29.5 points per game, posting a school-record 46 in an overtime win at Providence on Jan. 23 and then following that up with 37 in a home win over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Georgetown still was within two when star center Greg Monroe picked up his fifth foul with 2:52 remaining and left the game with 21 points and 8 rebounds. South Florida scored seven of the next eight points, silencing a stunned crowd at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
When I spoke to Jones before he boarded a flight from Tampa Bay to Washington D.C. on Tuesday night, I asked him whether it bothered him that people weren't taking his team seriously just yet.
"No, because respect is earned," he answered. "You've got to take respect. It's not something that's automatically given unless you're at one of those schools that gets all the hype. At South Florida, respect is taken, and that's what we plan on doing."
One night later, mission accomplished.
- South Florida