Martin Fennelly Columns
Bulls making unexpected charge in Big East
TAMPA - There was a real live crowd, and they made real live noise, and it felt like real live Big East basketball. And it was at University of South Florida. There is no Fever out on Fowler Avenue, but suddenly the temperature is rising thanks to Stan Heath and his Bulls. There was a time two seasons ago when Heath would walk into the Sun Dome and look at all those Big East school banners in the rafters ... Syracuse, Connecticut, Georgetown, Villanova, Louisville, and on and on, and ask himself a question.How are we going to win here? "I wouldn't say I was afraid, just aware of what we faced," he said. Now some people are aware of his Bulls. They knocked off No. 17 Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon at the Sun Dome for their third consecutive Big East victory, the first time that has happened since they joined the conference. There was great atmosphere, great sport, and no one got choked or slapped -- that's a great USF event if there ever was one. The Bulls even have a Beast of the East on their side -- junior guard Dominique Jones, who put up 37 against Pitt, and who is averaging 37 per game during this three-game roll. Rolls don't happen in the Big East for USF, just downward spirals. The Bulls began this conference season 0-4, but now they've won four of five, including the last three over Providence, Seton Hall and Pitt. "We've raised the bar," said Heath, in his third year at USF. "Now it's just a matter of keeping it there." That won't be easy, if you ask me. The Bulls' next three games are all on the road, at Georgetown, Notre Dame and Marquette. But Sunday wasn't for that. Sunday was for 14-7, 4-5 in the Big East. Understand, this was a program that last season celebrated its four conference wins because that was a school record. "We're thinking bigger right now," Jones said. Dreaming big as in maybe winning a game in the conference tournament, and maybe the NIT after that, or maybe even the ... Well, not so fast. Forget dancing. Try one step at a time. "If you can have a winning conference record, you'll be playing in the postseason," Heath said. This program hasn't even been to the NIT since shortly after the turn of the century, so even that would seem like progress. I still think it's next to impossible to win in basketball at this school in this conference, and that USF is the place where coaches go to die. But Stan Heath and his Bulls are breathing. "This is the best roll we've been on," Heath said. Jones is on an ungodly one himself. "I really haven't done anything and as a team we haven't done anything," Jones said. He dreams bigger. The Bulls dream bigger. Asked about his newly acquired star status, Jones said, "I try not to let it play mind games on me or anything." USF winning three in a row in the Big East is mind-bender enough. Who knows how long it will last. But there was fun on Sunday, real fun at the Sun Dome, from a real live basketball team.