Alan Dell

‘Not Invited Tournament?’ Not for USF

Let UConn feel like an underachiever and powder blue North Carolina look like ordinary blue. Let them bow their heads in shame. It doesn’t matter.

South Florida and those basketball mega-powers are all headed to the same place, but with a different mindset. Connecticut and North Carolina look reluctant and embarrassed to say NIT while the Bulls are thankful.

Some day USF might feel the same way, which would be a true sign of growth.

But for now the Bulls have the right to be feeling good about themselves. They are going to the dance, though some might call the NIT a place for the banished who lost their dreams.

Not for this program.

Seth Greenberg called USF a sleeping giant when he came in 1997, but after seven years as head coach bolted with his program still snoozing. The next coach couldn’t awaken anybody and looked relieved when he was escorted out of town.

Stan Heath arrived with his “everything is all right” and “what, me worry?” personality. The dream he rode in with was called Hope. He put the pieces together that will be on display tonight at 8 in the Sun Dome when the Bulls host N.C. State in an NIT first-round game.

It’s USF’s first postseason game since 2002 when the Bulls traveled to Muncie, Ind., and lost to Ball State. Two years earlier, they went to New Mexico and lost a first-round game.

It seemed as if the NIT selection committee wanted to send these guys as far away from home as possible, fearing they might win a game and embarrass the tournament.

Now they are home, seeded third and playing an ACC team; that’s growth itself, but the Bulls expect more.

At 20-12, they are two games away from tying the program single-season record for victories and can get their first postseason win since 1995.

Unlike his players, Heath has been to three NCAA Tournaments, but he sees the NIT as a program changer.

“We have talked about creating our own history and doing some special things,” he said. “I told our guys they have a chance to put a banner up there (in the Sun Dome), and we would love for it to say more than an (NIT) appearance.

“Our game is on TV, and we will be in a lot of households with recruits watching. It would a huge step in our program to do well and get to New York (for the NIT semis).”

In this tournament, motivation is a big factor, and the Bulls should have plenty of it.

“My guys are ready and focused,” Heath said. “It’s a lot different if you haven’t been there at all and you’ve been to the Final Four in two of the last five years. We haven’t played this time of the year in ages, and it’s good to do that.”

Their backcourt shot poorly in the Big East Tournament, but there is a lot of athleticism and quickness that can compensate for what might be an Achilles’ heel.

It begins with first-team All-Big East guard Dominique Jones, then there is steady veteran Chris Howard and Mike Mercer, whose quickness around the basket and leaping ability have been a big part of the Bulls’ success. Anthony Crater, the Ohio State transfer, is a nice option off the bench.

For the first time since he arrived, Heath has three solid big men who can hold their own and make their presence felt in 6-foot-10 Gus Gilchrist, 6-11 Jarrid Famous and 6-8 freshman Toarlyn Fitzpatrick. Gilchrist missed 15 games and is just getting back into playing shape, but he can shoot the trey, which gives USF a unique weapon.