USF's basketball prey today at the soldout Sun Dome: the No. 6 Gators.
By PETE YOUNG
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2001
TAMPA -- Brace yourselves, people of the bay area: The Big One is here.
Today's game between unbeaten South Florida and No. 6-ranked Florida at 2 p.m. at the Sun Dome is so big -- from USF's perspective -- that new standards for "big" are breaking out all over.
It's big enough to incite more than 100 USF students into the unprecedented act of camping out on the Sun Dome lawn.
It's big enough to set new (unofficial) records for trash-talking on Internet message boards. It's big enough to induce prankish antics by USF fans on the UF campus. It's big enough to set a Sun Dome attendance record for a sporting event, and big enough to have Grammy Award-nominated DeLeon Sheffield, the wife of Gary Sheffield, singing the national anthem.
"The atmosphere is going to be electric," USF coach Seth Greenberg said. "You don't have a pulse if you can't get excited about a game like this."
It's Dicky V. big, and of course there's nothing bigger in college basketball than the loquacious Dick Vitale broadcasting your game.
"When you think of college athletics in Florida, you think (football)," Greenberg said. "Right now, in December, South Florida-Florida (in basketball) is a significant sporting event."
It's big enough that USF sports information director John Gerdes, who has been at the school since 1987, said it is the most anticipated event in USF athletic annals, surpassing the first football game and a pair of home basketball games in 1991-92, against Florida State and Louisville.
USF (7-0) is off to its best start in history and is seeking the high-profile victory that will propel it into the national consciousness -- and national rankings. What better way to accomplish that than by beating the despised Gators?
The monster matchup is a filling main course, but there's also a delicious dessert: the unbeaten USF women, looking to equal its best start in history, play No. 20 Florida at 5.
The result is a campus buzz unlike any before, and Greenberg is the primary cause. First, his team is playing arguably the best basketball ever at USF.
Second, he laid down the gauntlet at Midnight Madness, challenging the students to follow in the tradition of hoops-frenzied schools such as Duke and Kansas, where students routinely camp out before big games.
Terry Lucas, a 26-year-old Navy veteran and former walk-on to the USF football team, responded.
"At Midnight Madness, everyone was like, "Hey, people are going to be camping out,' " said Lucas, a business major who has been writing a weekly column for the school paper from "GreenbergOpolis" on the north end of the Sun Dome. "I said, "I know how people are here, no one's going to camp out. Someone's got to take the initiative.'
"When Coach Greenberg said he would give us free pizza, I figured, "Hey, why not?' "
Lucas, the town "sheriff," and buddy Robbie Mann pitched a tent on Oct. 31. A few others followed, and this week it has taken off. By Friday afternoon it was the trendy campus hangout, with tent-wielding students registering with Lucas and the "population" swelling past 100.
Greenberg, the town "mayor," has obliged his community by bringing pizza the night before home games (a pizza chain sponsored Friday's giveaway). Women's coach Jose Fernandez has brought pizza after games, and this morning Greenberg was going to bring bagels.
"If those two kids didn't put out that first tent, there wouldn't be anyone out there," Greenberg said. "Now, Florida comes to town, and it becomes an event. It becomes something fun.
"Maybe it will change a little bit of the culture of our campus, from this sleepy commuter college to a school that actually people are proud to wear USF shirts and are excited about being Bulls."
USF must be at its best against talented, battle-tested Florida. Four Gators -- Udonis Haslem, Brett Nelson, Matt Bonner and Justin Hamilton -- played significant roles in Florida's run to the NCAA championship game in the 1999-2000 season.
South Florida counters with Conference USA player of the year candidates Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon. Centers Will McDonald and Gerrick Morris have provided a potent offense/defense rotation.
Strategically, the game's most compelling aspect is the fullcourt pressure defense showdown. It has been critical to Florida's success since coach Billy Donovan arrived six years ago; it became a staple for a more athletic USF team this season.
Most computer polls have the teams rated about even. Greenberg said the outcome boils down to toughness. But regardless of the result, Greenberg's program has taken a step forward.
"It's going to be a good, healthy college atmosphere," Greenberg said, "and you know what? That's what college athletics are all about."