USF basketball is finally on top, and Bulls can now see a new future

TAMPA — For most of the last half-century, this had been the job of maintenance. Close the doors, unhook the nets, turn out the lights.

Season after season at USF ended a few dance steps shy of a party. There were some winning seasons and a handful of NCAA Tournament appearances, but mostly there was a stampede to the parking lot at the end of the regular season.

Turns out, after all this time, these Bulls are naturals at celebrating.

Oh, it wasn’t the blast of confetti or the We Are The Champions sing-a-long. It wasn’t even the AAC championship T-shirts players donned after beating Tulane 85-72 to celebrate the first regular-season conference title in program history.

Instead, it was the recognition that something special had occurred Tuesday night. Something that does not erase the past, but may lead to a different future off Fowler Avenue. Something worth embracing, bonding and crying about.

Funny how clear the view is when you’re standing atop a ladder with a net in your hands and a common goal in your heart.

“I’m in the business of molding men,” USF coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said. “I want them to know what it’s like at the top. I want them to know what it’s like to be counted on every day, to have to produce every day.”

Even before Tuesday night, we knew this was the damnedest season of men’s basketball we’ve ever seen around here. The American Athletic Conference championship trophy that was handed out at mid-court was just the coronation we’d been waiting to see.

The more interesting question is how unlikely/illogical/unfathomable this scene was. It’s not as if No. 24 USF wasn’t capable of a season of this magnitude, but it happened so quickly and dramatically after the Bulls had gone 127-217 in the previous 11 seasons. Yes, there was a new coach in town, but the Bulls had cycled through different coaches and conferences before. And never before had they gone 23-5 or won a nation-leading 15 consecutive games.

‘It’s really cool, but it’s not for me. It’s cool for our university,” Abdur-Rahim said. “I get text messages from all across the country, ‘Man, do you know how cool that is that people are recognizing what’s going on in Tampa, Florida?’ All across the country.

“You want an impact. You want to make sure people feel special.”

This, Abdur-Rahim said on his postgame radio show, was for former coach Bobby Paschal. And Stan Heath. And players such as Radenko Dobras and Charlie Bradley. This was for every person who walked through the doors at the Yuengling Center with the hope of one day seeing a banner hanging from the rafters.

And it finally happened for a team of stragglers who showed up on campus in the dead of summer to prepare for a new season. Players who transferred from a half-dozen different colleges to join three holdovers from last year’s team to completely remake a roster.

It happened for a team that began the year with a 3-4 record, including losses at home to teams like Central Michigan and Maine. It happened for players who gathered in a hotel ballroom in Amherst, Massachusetts, for a heart-to-heart conversation after a devastating loss to Hofstra the night before.

“They didn’t always play with the right energy and effort,” Abdur-Rahim said. “We can learn from losses, but not if the energy and effort aren’t there. So let there not be another day, another practice or game, where we don’t play with energy, effort, enthusiasm.”

The Bulls lost the next game at UMass, but have since gone 20-1.

“Just blessed. Just blessed to be in this position,” said senior Selton Miguel, who was one of the three returning players on the roster. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs but finishing as a champion and finishing with a new family means a lot to me. We’re brothers for lifetime.”

Their work is not complete. The regular-season finale at Tulsa is on Saturday, and the Bulls need to win to maintain their status in the NCAA’s incomprehensible NET computer ranking. And the AAC tournament — with an automatic NCAA bid for the winner — is barely a week away.

Abdur-Rahim has been adamant that players keep their focus on where their feet are standing at any given time. And the coming days will be more important than ever to keep that singular focus and determination.

But for one night, at least, they got a short reprieve.

One by one, they climbed up a ladder and looked across a court at how far they had come.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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