On December 4, 1987, South Florida lost to Syracuse by a score of 111-65.
After the game, Bobby Paschal joked that he jumped off the roof of the Carrier Dome. He had slipped on the ice, cracking his ribs, and this quip was his explanation for what happened. (Hat tip to the estimable @GerdesJohn, for reminding me of this.)
On January 30, 1997, South Florida lost to Marquette 71-36.
After the game, Seth Greenberg made his most famous statement, one that would come to define USF athletic futility: "Sometimes you're the dog. Sometimes you're the tree. Tonight, we were the tree."
On February 12, 2014, South Florida lost to Connecticut 83-40.
And there's nothing funny about that.
The 1987-88 and 1996-97 USF teams were similar in a lot of ways. They were both among the worst in school history in pretty much every category, but especially scoring. Both were led by new coaches, trying to get USF to a level it never quite reached before. Each had brought in a bunch of new players. And both were facing a higher level of competition than USF was used to: the mighty Orangemen in 1987, and conference play in general in 1997.
USF went 8-20 in Bobby Paschal's first season, and would win a program-low six games in 1987-88, the year of the blowout at Syracuse. (USF's game before that was a loss to the University of Tampa, the last time that happened.) But he was starting to build the roster that would earn USF's first NCAA Tournament bid in 1990. Forwards Hakim Shahid and Darrell Coleman were around for both the Syracuse laugher and the Sun Belt championship two years later.
As for Greenberg: in addition to the usual challenges of taking over a bad team, he had to recruit almost an entire roster his first year, because most of last year's players had quit during the season. To make matters worse, the Bulls were entering a much tougher league in Conference USA. USF did not have a banner recruiting class; most of the players Greenberg bought in left the program after a year or two.
In short, these were two teams that you'd expect to get blown out. Shahid and Coleman were USF greats, but as sophomores were no match for Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, and Sherman Douglas. Syracuse shot a whopping 60% from the field that day, despite all of the starters only playing 20 minutes. Against Marquette ten years later, the Bulls couldn't shoot, going 12-for-55 from the field.
So what happened last night?
This isn't a new team under a new coach in playing over its head. If anything, it's the opposite: Stan Heath is a seventh-year coach, entering an easier league, with lots of returning talent, and bringing in what was probably USF's best recruiting class ever. And that class hasn't disappointed.
But last night, for the first time since Seth Greenberg coined the phrase in 1997, USF was the tree again.
Let me emphasize the important part of that statement: LAST NIGHT, USF was the tree again.
In 2004, when the Greenberg-era talent bubble finally popped in Robert McCullum's face, USF was not the tree. In 2006, the first season of Big East play, where McCullum was down to a handful of players and some walk-ons in an overwhelmingly difficult league, USF was not the tree. In 2009, when it was sophomore Dominique Jones and little else, USF was not the tree. In 2011, where Anthony Crater's awfulness was exceeded only by his durability and everyone else on the roster being even worse, USF was not the tree.
In 2014, USF was the tree.
Why are we still the tree?
Shouldn't USF basketball be past this? Not just this season, but as a basketball program. A program that's faced the best competition in the country. A program that's invested in itself. A program that's tasted some success. A program that's earned the right to be something other than a punchline.
This team is better than this. This team is too good to be as bad as they were last night. Look at some of the things we said about them:
This team has depth it's never had before, players that can score the ball from multiple sides of the floor, and returning experience to bring it all together.
The 8th place finish predicted by the AAC coaches in the preseason poll is a joke
This team has guards and swing players that can compete with anyone.
Get your tickets now, Bulls fans. This season is going to be fun.
Not that much has changed. Yes, Anthony Collins' injury was a devastating blow, but there's still too many good players on this team. This school's history is littered with gawdawful teams that didn't have half the talent this team does, that never lost a game that badly.
Maybe it's time to start raising expectations for USF basketball.
And I'm going to start right now by saying I was disappointed in Stan Heath's postgame remarks. I usually try not to parse coachspeak, but this juxtaposition of comments struck me:
Heath on radio: "We've got to burn the film and get ourselves ready for UCF. ... No excuses." #USF— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) February 13, 2014
But burning the film is making an excuse. It's saying the game was an aberration, that there is nothing to be learned from it, that the best thing to do is forget it ever happened and move forward. I think that's escapism. It's pretending there's nothing we could have done about that game. That's Sun Belt talk.
I think the opposite approach is called for. I think it would beneficial for this team, and the coaching staff, to sit down and watch all 40 minutes of the Connecticut game. They could analyze every sloppy cut, every missed assignment, every lackadaisical trip up the court, every ill-advised shot, every "thing we tried that had little or no shot of happening", as Coach Heath put it. Because how the hell is USF ever going to beat Connecticut if we can't even face why we lose to Connecticut?
But there are aspects of USF's downtrodden history that this year's team would do well to draw on. I think this team could use a good old fashioned chip on their shoulder. Again, I'm parsing press conference statements and on-court body language, but this team seems a little too calm and un-bothered. I wish they'd get a little angry sometimes.
There's a second part of that dog-and-tree quote that people forget. Here's the whole thing:
"Sometimes you're the dog. Sometimes you're the tree. Tonight, we were the tree. But believe me, we will be the dog some day and we will remember this night ... What goes around, comes around."
Seth Greenberg was angry that Mike Deane had called a timeout late in the game, an act Greenberg interpreted as unsportsmanlike. Deane said it was to teach one of his players. Whatever the truth was, the quote it inspired wasn't just funny shorthand for USF ineptitude. It was a boast that the tables would be turned. "Someday we will be the dog." And I think we forget that sometimes.
But now that the 2013-14 team has officially claimed the dog-and-tree mantle, they should claim the other part of it as well - the part where the humiliation and anger drives them to be better.
And that's not going to happen if they burn the film.