Monday, February 28, 2011

Bulls and Spartans Meet on Hardwood, 2/24/86

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the first-ever meeting between the University of Tampa and University of South Florida’s men’s basketball teams. Although their campuses are just a little over 10 miles apart, athletically the gap is much larger.

As members of the Big East Conference, the USF Bulls typically play other large NCAA Division I schools in every sport. The UT Spartans, as members of the NCAA Division II Sunshine State Conference, generally play other similarly-sized schools, while occasionally meeting up with Division I competition in certain sports. These contests – however rare -- are beneficial to programs like the Spartans, who can use them as measuring sticks against better competition.

There is less incentive, however, for the Bulls, or other schools from large conferences, to seek out contests against Division II competition. Athletic directors and coaches alike feel there is nothing to be gained, but everything to be lost. It is not unusual, for example, for the top Division II teams to be better than some lower-level Division I teams.

One need only look at USF’s reluctance to make the University of Central Florida an annual match-up on the football field to realize the level of paranoia that goes into scheduling opponents. UCF is a Division I, Conference-USA team, yet they are viewed as a smaller-conference foe. The risk-reward of playing the Knights on an annual basis just does not add up for the decision makers at USF, no matter how exciting such games would be for the fan bases of both schools.

On September 30, 1985, USF and UT both agreed that their two schools would meet on the hardwood for the first time during the upcoming season. The game became a possibility when Ohio State dropped USF from their schedule, creating an open date at the SunDome. The teams previously had no plans of playing each other, but with the chance to create some buzz for basketball in Tampa, administrators from both schools agreed to make it happen on February 24, 1986.

For the Spartans, this game presented an excellent opportunity to showcase their basketball program. The sport had made a comeback at UT in 1983 after being dormant since the end of the 1971 season. The Spartans were immediately competitive, going 20-11 in their first season back on the courts, and then went 23-8 and won the Sunshine State Conference during the 1984-85 campaign.

The Spartans played their share of Division I competition each year, matching up against teams such as Purdue, Florida State, Tulane, Iowa, Oregon and Kansas State. The Spartans beat the Oregon Ducks during the Far West Classic in Tampa, and fell to Kansas State by just one point in an overtime loss. Clearly, the Spartans were no punching bag.

USF head coach Lee Rose knew this, which may have in part explained his lack of enthusiasm for the game.

“He felt there was everything to lose, and nothing to gain,” explains Mick Elliott, who covered the game for the Tampa Tribune. “He also felt it was an insult to his program to have to schedule a Division II, cross-town rival.”

While the Spartans were 21-5 and on a roll heading into the contest, the Bulls were 13-13 and in need of a victory to guarantee at least a .500 season.

The 1985-86 campaign for USF – which would be Rose’s last in Tampa – proved utterly disappointing for a team that had earned three NIT appearances between 1980 and 1985. Rose had a commendable 105-68 mark over his six seasons at USF, but the program just could not get over the hump. Now, the Bulls had to play one of the top teams in Division II basketball in an emotional, special-event atmosphere where anything could happen. To lose on their home court would simply be the final insult.

On paper, the Bulls fielded a taller, heavier, deeper, and stronger team than the Spartans. In order to avoid an upset, the Bulls would have to play with a sense of urgency and match the motivation that the Spartans would bring to the game.

In the end, the game proved to be a mismatch. In front of a season-high crowd of 5,507 at the SunDome, the Bulls applied early defensive pressure and created 11 first half turnovers.

“They came out with a lot of emotion,” USF guard Tommy Tonelli said, “but we forced them into turnovers and made out defense work for us.”

Nerves clearly got the better of the Spartans in the early going. Either rattled by the crowd, the stakes of the game, or just a tenacious South Florida defense, the Spartans were out of their comfort zone from the opening tip-off.

“South Florida did what all Division I schools do to us by coming out with a lot of defensive pressure, and we did what we always do which is rush things and make mistakes,” said UT head coach Richard Schmidt.

After the Spartans scored the first points of the game on a free throw, USF soon jumped out a 19-5 advantage with 12:32 left in the first half and never looked back, taking a 40-24 lead into halftime.

The Spartans made a game of it in the second half, eventually narrowing the USF lead to eight points, but were unable to overcome the Bulls, losing 69-57.

“Every time we play a Division I team,” Schmidt said, “it usually takes us 10 to 15 minutes to get used to it. Once we got over that, I think we probably outplayed them, or at least played as well as they did.”

This would not be the last time these teams crossed paths. The all-around success of the first meeting prompted the two schools to schedule more games in the future.

“There was some real sizzle to it,” Elliott recalls. “The Tribune promoted the heck out of the game, and it was probably the best atmosphere that season for a USF home game.”

In their next meeting on December 3, 1986, the Bulls – led by first-year coach Bobby Paschal – were throttled by the Spartans 82-75 in a game that was never as close as the final score indicated. The Spartans led by 18 at halftime, and by as many as 20 in the second half, proving that they were not just a good Division II team, but a very good basketball team.

“The Spartans owned that game,” Elliott says. “They absolutely embarrassed South Florida. It was humbling for the Bulls, and especially for Paschal right out of the gate.”

The two schools played again two more times – the last coming in 1989 – with each team winning once to leave the all-time series at 2-2.

From all indications, this is one record that will stand the test of time. Even though Elliott says that college basketball in this area benefited from this brief rivalry, he would caution against fans of either team hoping for a fifth game to break the tie.

“I’ll go out on a limb,” he says, “and predict that they’ll never play again.”