When the University of South Florida men's basketball team arrived on campus Thursday morning, due to a lengthy charter airplane delay on the tarmac in Louisville, Ky., it was approximately 4:15 a.m.
But the Bulls felt no pain.
When they finally touched down in Tampa, the calendar had turned to March.
Yes, after two decades of dormancy, full-fledged March Madness has returned to USF.
Following the Bulls' 58-51 victory against No. 19 Louisville – in what coach Stan Heath calls "the biggest win in school history'' – there is ample evidence USF will hear its name called for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field during Selection Sunday on March 11.
"They should be in the NCAA Tournament right now,'' ESPN announcer Sean McDonough said. "There shouldn't be any questions.''
USF is 19-11, 12-5 in the Big East, with the regular-season finale against West Virginia (18-12, 8-9) awaiting Saturday afternoon at the Forum.
In the history of the Big East Conference, there have been 69 teams to win 12 games or more in the league. All 69 have been selected for the NCAA Tournament.
Heath said he's simply concentrating on the next game, oblivious to most of the conversation, but aware there are still doubters.
"I still think every now and then it's like no one wants us to get in, like we're the unsexy girl out there that nobody likes'' said Heath, still operating on zero sleep, after Thursday afternoon's light practice. "We've got to keep kicking the door. You just don't know. You don't want to leave anything to chance.''
The Bulls, seeking their first NCAA appearance since 1992 and only the third in program history, are suddenly the buzz of college basketball. Recently, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, who projects the tournament field on an almost daily basis, jokingly said he would drive to Tampa and "hand-deliver'' an NCAA bid to USF if the Bulls went 12-6 in the Big East.
Now 12-6 is the worst USF could finish.
USF's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), one of the power-ranking tools used by the NCAA Selection Committee to determine a team's tournament viability, is up to No. 35, ahead of Connecticut (36), Notre Dame (44), Seton Hall (48), West Virginia (55) and Cincinnati (69), five Big East teams that have been routinely projected in the NCAA field.
"People are going to say what they're going to say,'' USF guard Jawanza Poland said. "We can't worry about that. We just have to worry about ourselves and doing what we need to do. That's our mindset. They're not just going to give it to us. We're going to have to earn our way in.''
The Bulls already have a first-round bye for next week's Big East Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden. But if USF defeats West Virginia – along with either Notre Dame falling to Providence tonight or Georgetown losing to Marquette on Saturday afternoon – the Bulls would earn a double-bye into the Big East quarterfinals.
The college basketball pundits already seem convinced about USF's direction.
"Case closed – USF will dance baby,'' ESPN's Dick Vitale wrote on his Twitter feed.
"South Florida just earned a spot in the field,'' tweeted the well-respected college basketball columnist, Jeff Goodman, of CBSSports.com.
And there was this from ESPN's Jason King: "OK, South Florida. I'm sold. Bulls are biggest surprise of the season other than Indiana.''
USF has begun a heavy marketing push for its game against West Virginia.
All tickets are $10 with children admitted free (as has been the case all season). Free parking is being offered to USF students (with a student ID) in the front section of the Forum's North Lot.
All fans in the lower bowl will receive a free white T-shirt. It contains one word. The only word that matters these days, really.