Alan Dell

Catch these Bulls while you still can

How many miracles have you seen in your lifetime?

The birth of your kids, your marriage (maybe), and if you are lucky the day the IRS mistakenly deleted your name from its files?

Let’s face it, the list is short.

That’s why it’s so important to get to the Sun Dome before the college basketball season ends. It might be called the Heath Dome soon, but that’s not the reason for the rush.

The University of South Florida men’s basketball team is doing things that are made up of fairy tales, dreams and your kid’s leftover Christmas wish list.

But this is real. Just ask Dick Vitale, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson III — or his dad, or any other John Thompson within shouting distance.

Heading into this weekend, the Bulls are 15-8 and 5-6 in the Big East. If you think this is no miracle, hit the archives button. Scroll down to USF men’s basketball: It might say left for dead or out to lunch, return date unknown.

Since joining the Big East Conference in 2005, the Bulls had never won two straight conference games and entered this season with an 11-57 league record. After a 1-5 conference start, they’ve won four of five, including victories over then No. 17 Pittsburgh at home and then No. 7 Georgetown on the road.

USF has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1992. But right now the Bulls’ chances of getting invited to the Big Dance are better than those of both North Carolina and Connecticut.

The architect of this re-birth is head coach Stan Heath, and the catalyst is junior guard Dominique Jones. They are becoming folk heroes to the Tampa populous.

Heath was hired three years ago when the program was the Big East doormat and a place teams came to recharge their batteries with an easy win.

The previous coach said he would have never taken the job if he knew the Bulls were going from Conference USA to the Big East. It was like moving from the basement to the penthouse with empty pockets.

The Bulls are winning despite playing without their best big man, Gus Gilchrist, who was averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 rebounds before he injured his ankle. He has missed 15 games but is expected back soon.

There is not a lot of depth, and half of the top six guys are only here for a short stay.

Jarrid Famous is a junior college transfer who has been holding down the paint (11.6 ppg/7.7 rpg). Guards Mike Mercer (from Georgia) and Anthony Crater (from Ohio State) are transfers who felt unwelcome in their previous environment and saw a program that never takes the help wanted sign out of its window.

Fifth-year senior guard Chris Howard has been there since the beginning, but never played like he is playing now, proof that whatever has gotten into the Bulls is contagious.

But “Nique,” as Dominique Jones is called, is the engine that jump-started this dream machine. He is a projected first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and there is a good chance he will be gone after this season, so the opportunity to see USF’s version of Paul Bunyan is limited.

The hardest task for Heath is recruiting. When Blue Chippers visit places like Syracuse and the other Big East upper echelon teams, they see facilities that look like the Taj Mahal. They come to USF and think Wal-Mart.

Heath has had to mix and match and has drawn some criticism, but he has no choice. He has taken players who weren’t talented enough to play in the Big East or had character issues. There have been some problems, but Heath handled those with a touch of John Wooden, Sigmund Freud, Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski rolled into one.

The Bulls have only four home games left, beginning with a two-game stand against Cincinnati on Tuesday and St. John’s next Saturday.

In the most recent RPI Rankings — one tool the NCAA Tournament committee will use to select the 65-team field next month — USF was 50th, ahead of Connecticut and North Carolina and seventh among Big East teams.

Fans are hoping this is a long-term thing, but nothing is certain in a world where hopes clank off the rim and dreams vanish behind the 3-point arc.

So just in case it’s not, you don’t want to miss a miracle up close and in person.