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Finally, there’s hope for USF basketball

TAMPA — There isn't enough noise yet. There really isn't enough of anything yet. What is going on out at USF with the suddenly 11-2 men's basketball program hasn't entered Tampa Bay's sports orbit, what another Bucs coaching search, that juggernaut hockey team. Crowded field. USF men's basketball is always on the outside looking in.

But as the Bulls get ready to play at Tulsa Saturday night, they're on the inside peeking out. Not at Selection Sunday and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012. Maybe not even at snapping their streak of six consecutive losing seasons since that NCAA trip.

But there is hope.

You saw it Wednesday at the Yuengling Center as USF opened conference play with a comeback win over UConn. Yes, UConn is long gone from its four national championships, but the 76-68 win nevertheless was another mile marker for second-year USF coach Brian Gregory and his team, which went 10-22 last season, 3-15 in the AAC. The Bulls battled back from 13 down to score 51 in the second half to lock up the program's best start in 27 years. A crowd of 3,429 made the noise of 4,617.

Hey, what do you want, Cameron Indoor?

"Great crowd, great atmosphere for the first conference game," Gregory said. "To play that hard, with that kind of grit and toughness, I think will resonate with our fans, and hopefully anyone who was there will tell somebody and next game we'll get even more. It's a good step for us, but it's only one step."

USF men's hoops hasn't seen the far side of the moon in seemingly forever. Even when Stan Heath took the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, we just knew it wouldn't last, and it didn't. Then USF tried to hire that clown from Manhattan College who lied about having a college diploma. Then there was Orlando Antigua, the dancing bear and worldwide recruiter who couldn't coach a lick, winning just 24 games in three seasons. USF men's basketball was where head coaches went to die.

RELATED: AAC standings

Enter Gregory, 52, a native of Mount Prospect, Ill., who naturally grew up a Chicago Cubs fans, perfect for his current occupation. The Cubbies broke through a few year ago under Gregory's personal coaching hero, Joe Maddon.

"If the Cubs can win a World Series, we can do it here," Gregory said.

USF basketball can be an exercise in ugly at times. But it has the G word — grit — and it shows. It has redshirt junior transfer Laquincy Rideau, who scored 25 points against UConn. It has sophomore guard David Collins, who scored 17 on Wednesday. And it has 6-9 redshirt freshman forward Alexis Yetna, who is from the Tampa suburb of Paris, France, and can grab 10 rebounds in his sleep.

And there is Gregory, who ushered in 2019 by watching game tape as his wife and two daughters watched New Year's fireworks from the balcony of their Westchase home.

"Got to keep at it," Gregory said.

RELATED: USF basketball schedule

Gregory learned about working in the shadows early in his basketball life while playing for the U.S. Naval Academy. The Midshipmen went to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight in 1986, led by admiral David Robinson.

Gregory's contribution?

"What's your contribution when you're the 13th man?" he said. "I came to work every day and I practiced hard.  That was my job. That was the first team I ever saw where everybody was on the same page. I think of that year and that team all the time."

This team isn't that team. Don't get confused.

Even an NIT berth would be a great leap forward for USF.

"I knew what I was getting into," Gregory said. ""I knew it was going to take time. I love coaching. I love teaching. I'm a positive guy. We don't know yet. But we're going to be good. We're going to build a good program here."

By the way, Gregory also was watching film the Cubs won Game 7 of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland. Gregory was between jobs, having been fired by Georgia Tech, and was working as a consultant at Michigan State when Maddon and the Cubs made their miracle. Got to keep at it.

He thinks about 1908 as he thinks about 2019. He quotes liberally Maddon to his coaches. Clubhouse leader: Try not to … well, you know.

"And we don't," Gregory said.

USF is 1-0 in AAC. Let's leave it at that.

"There was a buzz," Gregory said. "I felt it. There was a little anticipation, but also a little 'Are these guys for real?'"

For now, they're real enough, and worth a look.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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