TAMPA — It’s doubtful the University of South Florida will offer any parting gifts to its opponent after tonight’s American Athletic Conference game at the Sun Dome.
But there should be a sense of loss.
The No. 12-ranked Louisville Cardinals, the defending national champions who have shared four different leagues with USF, are probably making their final visit to Tampa.
Beginning next season, the Cardinals are shifting from the AAC to the ACC, the super-charged basketball league that has plucked Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville from the old Big East.
“It’s always great to play against a team like Louisville,” USF senior forward Victor Rudd said. “Louisville, Memphis and teams like that in our league, they are the ones everybody knows about. You can measure yourself against programs like that. They’re always good.”
Louisville has essentially had its way with the Bulls, dominating the series 27-4 since the teams began playing annually in the 1991-92 season.
For USF, which jumped from the Sun Belt to the Metro Conference that season, the association with Louisville has still been a major positive.
It has meant trips to Louisville’s old home, tradition-rich Freedom Hall, and playing before spirited packed houses. Louisville’s visits to Tampa have meant red-clad crowds at the Sun Dome, not surprising because one of the school’s largest alumni chapters is in the Tampa Bay area.
USF’s coaches have competed against a pair of Hall of Famers, Denny Crum and current Cardinals leader Rick Pitino.
The Bulls have taken on the likes of Clifford Rozier, DeJuan Wheat, Reece Gaines, Francisco Garcia, Terrence Williams and Russ Smith, who each received All-America recognition.
“Louisville is the defending national champion, and it’s a team in our league that we play twice in the regular season,” USF coach Stan Heath said. “So, obviously, the presence of Louisville means a lot to our league.”
Even if Louisville’s presence ends after this season.
“We’ve had a lot of comings and goings, as we all know, but this is still a really, really good league,” Heath said. “When (the breakup of the old Big East) first happened, we were all wondering if we could be as good of a basketball league as we were used to.
“When you start putting it all together, when you see what the other teams have, man, this is a good league. Louisville, obviously, is always a challenge.”
Even with Louisville’s dominance, the Bulls registered two of their most memorable victories against the Cardinals.
With USF fighting for the postseason, the Bulls defeated Louisville 69-66 at the Sun Dome on Feb. 13, 1992, clinching it on Gary Alexander’s 8-footer off the glass with eight seconds remaining. It jump-started USF toward an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, in perhaps the most significant regular-season victory of Heath’s USF tenure, the Bulls won at Louisville 58-51 on Feb. 29, 2012. At the time, Heath called it “the biggest win in school history” and it solidified USF’s NCAA tournament bid.
At present, USF needs a telescope to see the NCAA tournament’s bubble. The Bulls (10-8) have lost six of their past eight games and are desperately seeking a turnaround. Louisville (16-3) is well on the way to its 40th NCAA bid, which ranks fifth all-time.
Regardless of the stakes, for 23 seasons, it was always special when Louisville came to town.
“This is what we signed up for, and we have to look at it as an opportunity,” Heath said. “Obviously, we have nothing to lose. Nobody is expecting us to do anything in this game except the guys in this locker room, so we have to be the ones that go out there fearless, go out there with confidence and go out there aggressive.”
It’s the type of game that gets the juices going. That explains the sense of loss. Take a good, long look.
Louisville’s association with USF — always a positive for the Bulls — is coming to an end.