Wednesday, 4 a.m.
The only thing I know for sure about the USF men's basketball program is this: I think they should have one.
So someone needs to clean the gym. Hang some baskets. Blow up a ball. Buy matching shorts. Get this barn ready to burn. Hoop city, baby.
They do? Already?
The USF men's basketball program has fallen through the floor and landed in a big pile of who cares? They didn't matter this year. They didn't matter last year. They haven't mattered for a lot of years. USF has a basketball program the way the Cleveland Browns have an NFL team. Someone has to make the divisions even. Someone has to dribble the ball off a friendly foot.
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And so, before we begin to discuss whether Brian Gregory is the guy who can make a program matter again, the first question you have is this: Can anyone? The Bulls are in the basement of a very bad basketball league, and still, they cannot get up. They cannot make you care.
Think about this. For all the bad leagues and bad teams that USF has had, this one was tied for the second-worst in the history of ever. In 1979-80, the Bulls won all of six games while competing in the mighty Sun Belt Conference. This year, they won seven. Yippee.
And so it goes. Basketball has often been lousy at USF. There have been 28 seasons when USF has won 15 or fewer games. It's a program that no one talks about, no one thinks about, no one raises their voice about. If the Washington Generals had a college team, it would be USF.
What's that? Yeah, Florida is a football state. But FSU, Florida, Miami and Florida Gulf Coast all made the NCAA Tournament this year. Central Florida made the NIT. USF? It missed by, oh, about 15 games.
Here's a question: In the entire history of the program, for all the bounces and bad shots, has there ever been a morning when someone walked into the office and said "did you catch that USF game last night?" Or "I can't wait to see if USF can win their big game Saturday." No. Because most USF games kind of run together.
This is a lost-cause of a program. It's a team where players go to sleep in airports, and no one notices they aren't there any more. It's also a program where players go to sleep on the court, and no one notices that, either. At USF, there is a lot of napping going on.
If this program is ever going to mean anything to anyone in Tampa Bay, it's going to have to have a driven kind of person in charge of it. You know, a guy like Seth Greenberg, who fought the good fight to get locals interested in USF. Stan Heath made an NCAA Tournament here (after 20 years), then faded. You need a coach who is in the living room of a 6-8 kid from Miami, and you need one who is transferring from a senior college.
Now comes Gregory. I don't know if Gregory is that guy or not. In his last season at Georgia Tech, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regularly assailed him. Yet, Louisville coach Rick Pitino once called Gregory “one of the top 15 coaches in the nation.” I know that Tom Izzo is my favorite basketball coach ever, and Gregory worked as his right-hand man for years. That means something.
Gregory was fired after a 21-win season. USF has four of those. Period. He cleaned up a bad academic situation. He survived with a dearth of talent. (The Bulls have as much dearth as any team on earth.)
I do know this. If Gregory was so completely awful at Georgia Tech, wouldn't the Yellow Jackets have been better than 17-14 this year with him out of the way?
Still, you wonder if Gregory can clean up a mess this large. Can he stop the exodus of recruits? Can he win even a mediocre league game?
By and large, I believe that most coaches know where to put their Xs and where to put their Os. They know to call time out when the other team is on a scoring streak. They know how to scowl at a referee after a blocking foul. Certainly, Gregory should be able to handle a whistle. Most coaches can.
But does he has the right energy, the right attitude, to build something that students will consider cool? Can he build a buzz throughout Tampa Bay? Can he win over a recruit? Is the size of his coaching talent bigger than the size of the mess in front of him?
Can it be done? Sure it can, if a coach works hard enough, coaches well enough and gets a few breaks. There is zero reason that USF can't be as good as Central Florida. Hey, the AAC isn't exactly the Big East, you know.
Gregory needs to acknowledge this from the start. A normally successful season won't do it. A better-than-average season won't, either. USF has dribbled itself into the vapor. It doesn't count. It doesn't matter. If anyone is talking about the Bulls, no one is answering.
If Gregory isn't good enough, we'll do this again.