Several of the best USF basketball alumni are teaming up this summer to play in The Basketball Tournament, a nationally televised five-on-five competition with a $2 million jackpot. But they need your help to qualify! Vote for Tampa Bulls here. If they win, you can get a portion of the prize for voting.
We’ll be catching up with several of Tampa Bulls’ stars over the next few weeks, talking to them about The Basketball Tournament and their USF careers. First up was Ron Anderson Jr., now we’re sitting down with former Bulls forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick.
What made you decide to join TBT?
The opportunity to play games in the U.S. Since I graduated from college, I haven’t had that opportunity to play organized basketball at home, on ESPN. That was huge for me— having my family and the people close to me there to see me play.
How far can this team go?
If all the pieces come together, we can win it all for sure. There are a few spots that we haven’t yet filled. We’ve got seven players now, and if we can fill in those last spots like we want to, we can win it all.
Can you give the fans a rundown of what you’ve been doing since graduating from USF?
Since I graduated school, I started my overseas career in European competition. I started the ‘13-14 season in Belgium, and that was my first professional experience. After that I came over to Greece and had a very successful season. Last season I played in the top league in Germany, which was a great experience. This year I’m back in Greece, and I’m having the best professional season of my career. It might be the best season of basketball I’ve ever had in my life.
Looking back on your USF career, you were part of what was undeniably the greatest team in school history— the NCAA tournament squad in 2012. What made the team so special?
It was the collection of guys, the personalities that were in that locker room. We had very competitive guys, guys who were very unselfish and bought into winning games. It wasn’t about our personal agendas. During college, you can get a bunch of guys concerned with their next steps, their individual goals, playing in the NBA. It wasn’t like that. We put all that stuff aside, bought in, and played for each other.
The team got off to a slow start, but you were red-hot once you hit conference play. Was there a turning point in that season, once where you thought, “Wow, this is a team that can do some damage?”
From the beginning, we knew we were talented. That was the same story for every year that I can remember, looking at the roster and knowing that we had a talented team. That particular season, towards the middle of the year, right before conference play, we really found our identity and we really took that first half of the season, that non-conference part of the season as learning how to win games. We got better as the season progressed. Even as we went on through Big East play, the season got better and better. We stuck to our identity of our team and what worked for us.
You mentioned that identity. That team was famous for its “Root Canal” defense. Was that something that Coach Heath was trying to instill from Day One, or did it develop as the season went along?
The entire staff really put the effort in to teaching us defense. All the players learned quickly, put in time to coach each other and hold each other accountable. Once we started to believe in each other, it just turned out to be a great product. Even in our practices, we were really competitive, and in those games, it showed.
Did you realize, at the time, how precedented that season was? Was that something the team thought about?
It was definitely a day at a time type deal. Looking back on it, we realized what we accomplished, but as it was happening, we had no idea. We were just enjoying playing with each other and enjoying the ride. That’s how we approached the entire season. We took every game seriously and took every opponent seriously. The scouting for each game was very expansive, very detailed. It was difficult for us to look up and see what we were doing. We all realize now, in hindsight, that was a very special group and a very special season.
How does it feel to be part of the best team in USF history— in fact, with the 2009 NIT team you were on a freshman, you were probably part of two of the best teams in school history. What does USF have to do to get back to that level?
For me, I’m extremely proud of it. I’m a Tampa native, so to go to USF and being able to accomplish something like that is huge. I’m very honored to be able to do that. Going forward, for the program to be able to achieve something on that level, it takes the right group of guys— not only the talent and ability to win basketball games, but also the character. The guys we had in the locker room, the guys who led our team, were guys with really good character. We all got along so well; there really weren’t any cliques where guys were just hanging out to the side. We all hung out together. We were family.
When USF fans think of Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, they think of two plays— I’m sure you can probably guess what they are. The first one, your freshman season against Providence, you’ve completed this absolutely wild comeback (ed. note: If you haven’t seen this, watch it now— USF was down by 9 with 45 seconds left and wound up winning), you’re down three in the final seconds, Dominique Jones gets the ball and passes it to you. You’re a freshman power forward, and you’re about to have to take a buzzer-beater three to send the game to overtime. What in the world is going through your head there?
At the time, I hadn’t really taken many threes in my college career, so I was pretty nervous about that. When I had the ball, that was the best look we had— I had to shoot it. It was more of an immediate reaction to being in that time and place. We got the steal, and they immediately doubled Dominique. The ball came to me, and it was just a reaction. Once the ball went in, I realized how big the moment was. Like you said, it was a very big comeback, so we were just trying to fight and claw our way back into the game.
The other big moment was in the NCAA Tournament game against Temple. The team got off to a slow start in the first half, but you come out guns blazing in the second. On consecutive possessions, you drop a couple of threes from the exact same spot behind the arc to pull USF back into the lead. What was the atmosphere in that locker room like at halftime?
We weren’t in a place of panic. No one felt like we were out of the game. Even the next game against Ohio, at no point did we think that we were gonna lose. The game wasn’t over. At halftime, we just went over some of the things they were doing well, and what we could’ve done better. When we came out, we got back to our style of play. We got some turnovers, and built some confidence through our defense. That’s just how we played— our offense was always triggered by our defense, by forcing teams to get uncomfortable.
How do you think those teams, and your USF career in general, changed your style of play as an individual?
First of all, it taught me how to be a coachable guy. When you come to the college level, you’re coming from high school, where you’re the best player on your team, and you’ve got all these different personalities coming together who were the best player somewhere. Playing at USF and playing with this group of guys taught me to play well with other good players. I had a lot of good leaders that I could follow throughout the years— Chris Howard, Dominique Jones, Ron Anderson, Hugh Robertson, Jarrid Famous. I was able to follow their lead.
RAPIDFIRE SECTION: What was your personal favorite moment of your USF career?
Favorite moment... it would have to be the three-point shot against Providence, and how we fought back in that game.
What’s on your pre-game playlist?
A lot of old ‘90s hip-hop like DMX. Something that reminds me of when I first started playing. It takes me back a little bit.
Who was the best leader that you played with?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. Chris Howard, in my opinion, was one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with, but Ron Anderson led us all the way to the NCAA Tournament. That was the best team in South Florida history, so I have to give it to Ron Anderson. I have a lot of respect for both of those guys.
Who was the funniest?
Probably Mike Burwell. I was only with him for my freshman and sophomore years, but he was definitely the funniest.
Hmm... I didn’t play with very many good dancers. Maybe LaVonte Dority? He was a pretty good dancer.
Who smelled the worst in the locker room?
Jordan Omogbehin. The big seven-footer.
You’re down one point in the final seconds of the game. Who do you want taking the last shot?
It’s gotta go to me. I can be clutch; I like those moments.
Who are you pulling for the NBA playoffs?
I’m a huge LeBron James fan. Gotta pull for the King to do it again.
In a sentence or two, what makes being a USF Bull so special?
Being a product of my city. USF is part of who I am. I’m a Tampa kid.
Last question: if you win the tournament, what’s the first thing you’re doing with your prize money?
That’s a good one. Maybe I’d divvy it up— not all of it— with some of my other teammates who didn’t make the roster who are still part of my USF family. Martino Brock, Alberto Damour, Jawanza Poland. I would share a piece of the pot with them.