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NIT cushions Bulls' late-season fall

South Florida is chosen for a national TV game at New Mexico.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000


TAMPA -- They had an RPI rating below 90 for most of the season. They failed to secure a quality win on the road. They lost four of their last five games, twice blowing huge leads.

And, they watched their grip on the National Division title in Conference USA slip away in the final two weeks of the season.

But some folks in New York chose to look at the bigger picture.

And that, coach Seth Greenberg said, is one of a South Florida Bulls program on the rise.

Late Sunday night, South Florida, which once flirted with the hope of making it to the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid, was rewarded for competing in one of the nation's best conferences with a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

The Bulls open post-season play against New Mexico at midnight Wednesday on ESPN.

"It's just a tremendous honor and it shows you what the NIT thinks about the direction of our program," Greenberg said. "Not only did it select us, but it selected us to play in a nationally televised game."

Sunday's news came as a beacon of light in what had seemed a gloomy final two weeks of the season. After all, a program that midway through the season seemed poised to be playing deep into March, fell apart in the home stretch.

Although they beat Southern Mississippi (88-81), the Bulls lost to Marquette (61-60), Louisville (76-66) and Memphis (91-72) and lost a first-round bye in the C-USA tournament.

"I always had a lot of confidence in my team but obviously we had to get better," Greenberg said. "We have great potential and I'll be the first to say we needed to be more mature at times. But I never lost faith."

In the opening round of the C-USA tournament, the Bulls' NCAA hopes came to a crashing halt after they blew a 10-point second-half lead and were edged 60-58 by Memphis.

After that game, Greenberg said he felt his team deserved a chance to play in the NIT. He said the strength of C-USA, which at the time featured the No. 1 team in the country (Cincinnati), was enough to push a 17-win team into the NIT.

"No mistake about it, Conference USA was the vehicle that drove us into the NIT," Greenberg said.

USF is tentatively scheduled to leave for New Mexico today and Greenberg said the Bulls will get to practice immediately.

"I can't tell you how great it feels to get back on the practice court," Greenberg said.

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