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Former Bulls reflect on USF's last NCAA march in 1992

TAMPA - Now they have jobs, families and real-life responsibilities. Now they play basketball only sparingly – if at all. They are a step or two slower, unable to elevate like the old days. Twenty years ago, they led the University of South Florida men's basketball program into the 1992 NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid out of the old Metro Conference, an accomplishment that seemed to signal the Bulls' full arrival into big-time status. USF hasn't reached the tournament since.
But as coach Stan Heath's current Bulls (19-12) continue their turnaround march toward a potential NCAA berth at this week's Big East Conference Tournament – No. 6-seeded USF has a first-round bye tonight and opens Wednesday against either No. 11 Rutgers or No. 14 Villanova – the memories of 1992 have been awakened. "I never would've dreamed that it would be 20 years before we would be back in the NCAA Tournament,'' said former Bulls coach Bobby Paschal, 70, who is retired in Tampa after serving as USF's coach from 1986-96. "It's really nice that people enjoyed our team and still remember us. I think it's time we had some company. "I hope very, very much that this team gets in. They deserve it. Their approach is to win the game, not to see what one individual can do. They play great defense. They all accept their roles. You want to see them rewarded.'' Three of USF's senior starters from the 19-10 season in 1991-92 – Radenko Dobras, Fred Lewis and Bobby Russell – still live in Tampa. The other senior, center Gary Alexander, is a high-school resource officer near Atlanta. Meanwhile, Derrick Sharp, who was a junior shooting guard, is an assistant coach for the Maccabi Tel-Aviv first-division professional team in Israel, where he has played and lived since his graduation. In many ways, they are far removed from USF basketball. But they are still nearby, too. Alexander has a USF logo on his newly acquired iPhone. Dobras, a USF Athletic Hall of Famer whose No. 31 jersey was retired, has attended several games. Russell, whose son Devin plays for Chamberlain High School, follows the Bulls when he can. Meanwhile, Lewis and Sharp communicate regularly about USF. They are now brothers-in-law. At Sharp's wedding, Lewis met the wife's sister and eventually they married. "This is a fun time in the life of these players,'' said Lewis, who is head basketball coach at Middleton High School. "They should appreciate it and relish it because they'll remember it forever. There's nothing more exciting than being one of those teams (being talked about) in March Madness. It gives you such great energy.'' "I think when we got into the NCAA Tournament in our day, it changed the mentality of the university,'' Dobras said. "All things were possible. And all things are possible for this team as well. It would be a giant step for USF and I think it would be a breakthrough. I think we would get in regularly because the program seems ready to take off. It wouldn't be 20 years before the next NCAA Tournament. No way.'' ***** How long has it been since USF last participated in March Madness? The school had begun meetings to assess the feasibility of starting a football program (and there were many vocal opponents). The Tampa Bay Lightning's inaugural season was months away. The World Wide Web had just been invented. Skip Holtz was the new offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Michigan's "Fab Five'' – all freshmen – was the talk of college basketball. USF senior Ron Anderson Jr., was in diapers. USF freshman point guard Anthony Collins had not been born. Heath was an assistant at Wayne State University. "It seems like a long time ago, but it really wasn't because we have all maintained a close relationship,'' Alexander said. "We went from boys to men at that university. That season was like the culmination of a long journey and kind of the beginning of our lives. "We got a lot of attention at the end. But through a lot of it, we just had each other.'' In some ways, the Bulls seniors were misfits. Dobras arrived – sight unseen – from Banja Luka, Yugoslavia. Alexander was academically ineligible his first season, then sat out another year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Russell, once a hot high-school prospect, also tore an ACL and nearly every school pulled their scholarship offers – except USF. Lewis, the team captain, began at the University of Tampa, a Division II program, before seeking a higher level. Paschal, hired from Southwestern Louisiana to replace Lee Rose, weathered a 21-63 start in his first three seasons before the Bulls (20-11) earned an automatic NCAA bid in 1990 by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The next season, a spot in the National Invitation Tournament followed. So there were great expectations for 1991-92, particularly because the core group was essentially comprised of full-grown men, all between 22 and 24 years old. "We had a high level of maturity, both physically and emotionally,'' Paschal said. "A lot of times, when something needed to be said, I didn't even need to say it. Those guys policed themselves. And they were all about winning. That's all they cared about.'' The Bulls, who jumped from the Sun Belt to the seven-team Metro, began 10-2 and nearly climbed into the Associated Press top 25. They defeated five teams that reached the NCAA Tournament (Florida State, Iowa, Louisville, UNC Charlotte and Tulane). They pulled out of a 12-8 mid-year slump, partially brought about by Dobras' ankle injury, to finish the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. It looked like all the work was wasted when USF inexplicably collapsed in the Metro Tournament's first round. The Bulls surrendered an 11-point lead in the final 2:35 of regulation and fell to sub-.500 Southern Miss 92-87 in double overtime. "I think this loss did us in,'' said a somber Lewis afterward. But on Selection Sunday – with no formal team gathering and limited fanfare – USF got good news. When No. 11-seeded USF popped into the bracket for a first-round NCAA game against No. 6 Georgetown at Boise, Idaho, there was an uproarious scene as a half-dozen Bulls stormed into one player's room and whooped it up. Only one local television station was there to capture the scene, which ended up leading that night's edition of ESPN's SportsCenter. The Tampa Tribune's banner headline read: "Oh, Boise! USF gets in.'' It hardly mattered that the Bulls fell to Georgetown, featuring senior center Alonzo Mourning, 75-60. The next day, while staying the weekend before a long trip home, several USF players went snow-skiing. "It was almost like we didn't want our dream to end,'' Alexander said. "We wanted that trip to last forever.'' ***** The other day, Russell visited the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center, USF's sparkling new practice facility. "Wow!'' Russell said. "I can't say that we had a practice facility. Back in the day, if the Sun Dome had a concert or something, we got kicked out and had to use the old gym. Times have really changed.'' The Sun Dome is undergoing a massive renovation before re-opening next season. "When I drive on the campus now, it doesn't even look like the same place of 20 years ago,'' Paschal said. "It was a very sterile looking campus and now it's absolutely beautiful. The facilities improvements athletically and academically are incredible. "It's amazing how so much can change in 20 years. We were going from conference to conference to conference – all upward moves – and I almost can't remember what conference we were in and when. But now look at what they have.'' USF went from the Sun Belt to the Metro to Conference USA in the span of five seasons. The Bulls were accepted into the Big East in 2005-06. And now, after tying for fourth place in what is often considered the nation's best conference, the Bulls are on the verge of the school's third NCAA bid. "I hope they bring it home,'' Lewis said. "Let's do some damage and win a few NCAA games,'' Alexander said. "I would love to see another banner hanging up there when they open up the Sun Dome again,'' Dobras said. It all seems like a blur. Now they are 40-somethings, immersed in real life. But it's March Madness, time to feel like a kid again. "We remember what it's like,'' Russell said. "It's the best feeling in the world. Those guys must be having the time of their lives.'' ***** THE STARTERS: AN UPDATE Looking at USF's starting lineup for the 1991-92 season. Gary Alexander SCOUTING REPORT: Undersized, 6-foot-7 center, but rugged rebounder and inside presence. Spectacular dunker. Had senior-season games of 23 and 20 rebounds. AFTER USF: Had brief NBA stints with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. Played professionally for 13 years in Israel, Spain, France, Italy, Turkey and Poland. TODAY: Works as a resource officer for North Springs Charter High in Sandy Springs, Ga. Has a daughter, Jayla (16). Radenko Dobras SCOUTING REPORT: 6-foot-7 combination guard. Excellent passer and outside shooter who left USF as the school's all-time assists leader and second-leading scorer. Academic All-American. AFTER USF: Played seven years professionally in Israel, Germany and the CBA. Had tryouts with the NBA's Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. TODAY: Employed by Morgan Stanley in Tampa. Has a son, Stefan (12). Fred Lewis SCOUTING REPORT: Excellent mid-range game at small forward (6-foot-5). Determined rebounder. Team captain and unquestioned leader. AFTER USF: Played 14 years professionally in Japan, Israel and the CBA with summer stints in Venezuela, Canada and the Philippines. TODAY: Head basketball coach, Middleton High. Married to Rachel. Has two sons, Fred Jr. (20) and Joshua (6) and a daughter, Rayna (4). Bobby Russell SCOUTING REPORT: Ferocious defender who guarded the opponent's best offensive player. Effective role player at 6-foot-4 who contributed all over the box score. Smart passer. Dependable outside shooter. AFTER USF: Played professionally one season in Israel. TODAY: Works as detention sergeant at Polk County Jail in Frostproof. Married to Darena. Has a son, Devin (16), and daughter, Rayna (6). Derrick Sharp SCOUTING REPORT: Junior-college transfer was team's only non-senior starter. Electrifying, 5-foot-11 outside shooter who could heat up quickly from behind the arc. AFTER USF: Played on second-division teams in Israel for three years. After gaining Israeli citizenship in 1996, played for Maccabi Tel Aviv until his retirement in 2010. TODAY: Second assistant coach for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Spends 10 months in Israel, then returns to Riverview each summer. Married to Justine. Has three sons, D.J. (15), Gabriel (10) and Emanuel (8) and a daughter, Maya (5).  


Here are some of the memorable moments from the University of South Florida's 1991-92 men's basketball season, when the Bulls last reached the NCAA tournament.

 Dec. 20, 1991 – Five days after beating Florida in Gainesville, Bulls defeat Florida State, 92-88, before 10,411 Sun Dome fans. FSU, featuring four eventual NBA first-round draft picks, reaches the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

 Dec. 30, 1991 – Two days after upsetting No. 23-ranked Iowa, 85-78, Bulls receive a program-record 58 votes in the Associated Press poll to finish four spots out of the top 25.

 Feb. 8, 1992 – USF, without injured point guard Radenko Dobras, hits the wall in an 87-63 loss at Southern Miss. The Bulls, 12-8 overall and watching NCAA tournament hopes fade, are amid a 2-6 midseason slump that began with Dobras' ankle injury on Jan. 11.

 Feb. 24, 1992 – USF upsets No. 15-ranked Tulane, 81-76, on the eve of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Bobby Russell's 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining breaks a tie, then Radenko Dobras tacks on two free throws. It's the high point in a seven-game winning streak to close the regular season.

 March 13, 1992 – USF falls to Southern Miss, 92-87, in a double-overtime quarterfinal at the Metro Conference tournament in Louisville, Ky. The Bulls head home thinking they are relegated to the National Invitation Tournament.

March 15, 1992 – USF receives an NCAA tournament at-large bid. The Bulls, a No. 11 seed in the West Region, face No. 6 Georgetown in Boise, Idaho.

 March 19, 1992 – USF, trailing by three points with 4:11 remaining, fades down the stretch and falls in the NCAA tournament's first round to Georgetown, 75-60. Hoyas center Alonzo Mourning produces 21 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots. The Bulls finish 19-10.

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