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Nicholas, Selvie say USF a better tackling team

USF redshirt freshman Andre Polk Jr. engages in a tackling drill with fellow linebacker Danny Thomas during a recent practice.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

USF redshirt freshman Andre Polk Jr. engages in a tackling drill with fellow linebacker Danny Thomas during a recent practice.

We'll learn soon enough -- in about eight days -- whether the tackling of USF's defense has improved from last season.

But two significant observers, both of whom know a thing or two about the fundamental, insist the Bulls are better.

One of them is Bulls two-time All-American DE George Selvie, who has spent the preseason working out on campus and hanging around the team with the thought of eventually joining the staff in an official capacity.

"It's a very good tackling team," said Selvie, who last played in the NFL in 2015.

"Coach (Charlie) Strong has been pushing them on defense. He's a defensive coach and he's coming out here teaching them his defense, a hard-nosed defense. That's what he wants and they're responding to it."

Former first-team All-Big East LB Stephen Nicholas, now a Bulls defensive quality-control assistant, concurred before hedging slightly.

"Most definitely," Nicholas said when asked if this is a better tackling team. "We're getting better. ... We're working at it, but we're definitely getting better at that, okay?"

At least twice last season (after losses to FSU and Temple), former Bulls coach Willie Taggart publicly called out his team's tackling -- or lack thereof. USF ranked 120th nationally in total defense (482.0 ypg) and 84th against the run (196.5 ypg).

When asked specifically about his linebackers' tackling proficiency late last week, new defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary indicated he was pleased to a degree.

"It could always get better," he said. "You've got to think, as far as live reps go, it's limited, because you never want to hurt your own team. So we've had a couple of live scrimmages where we've done okay, but you'd like to see it through a full game and see how we tackle live bodies.

"We've gotten as close to live as possible, and they've been more than adequate so far."

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New name for St. Petersburg's bowl game: the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl

Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross is tackled by Miami (Ohio) wide receiver DeAndre Huff (28) during the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross is tackled by Miami (Ohio) wide receiver DeAndre Huff (28) during the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.

St. Petersburg, a notable contributor to college football's rich history of bizarre bowl sponsorships, might have just outdone itself.

The annual contest, held on Tropicana Field's synthetic turf, reportedly will be sponsored by a national lawn mower manufacturer.

Former ESPN college football insider Brett McMurphy reported Friday morning the St. Petersburg Bowl -- set for Dec. 21 -- has been re-named the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. 

The latter part of the title appears an attempt to further regionalize the game, though the most prominent Gasparilla-themed events each winter are staged in Tampa.

The bowl is holding a press conference next week, presumably to formally announce the name change. Past sponsors of the bowl -- which began in 2008 -- include magicJack, Beef 'O' Brady's and Bitcoin.

This year's contest is slated to pit an American Athletic Conference team against a Conference USA squad.

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USF journal: Tyre McCants bulks up, Greg Reaves on scholarship

USF fourth-year junior Tyre McCants (8) had 25 catches last season.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF fourth-year junior Tyre McCants (8) had 25 catches last season.

In their perpetual quest to create glaring advantages in their passing game, the Bulls may have come upon the most novel mismatch yet.

Isolating a speedster against a linebacker? Too routine.

How 'bout a speedster who resembles a linebacker?

Fourth-year junior Tyre McCants, who arrived at USF weighing around 210 pounds more than three years ago, now is listed at 236. If he were a backer, he'd be the second-heaviest on the team. (Here's a photo of him following Thursday's practice).

"I feel comfortable," said McCants, who at 5-foot-11 sports a stocky, muscular frame. "I feel like I'm still running the same."

Though he says he's closer to 230 after nearly four weeks of preseason practice, McCants is the biggest receiver in the American Athletic Conference based on official roster listings.

And he's by far the stockiest of any Division I receiver in the state. Florida's Kalif Jackson and FAU's DeAndre McNeal are listed at 236, but stand 6-4 and 6-1, respectively.

"I like to use it to my advantage, I like being a bigger body," said McCants, a utility force (1,918 all-purpose yards) on the 2013 Niceville High team that reached the Class 7A state title game. "I don't think it ever really holds me back speed-wise, so I just use it to my advantage."

McCants said he initially bulked up after sustaining an ACL injury his freshman year, and played at around 220 last season, when he enjoyed a breakthrough season (25 catches, 384 yards, four touchdowns). He was limited in spring drills by a sprained right foot, then added 10 pounds in the offseason.

The coaches plan to exploit that frame -- and fleetness -- by putting McCants in the slot, where he's likely to out-muscle most defenders he encounters.

"He's a bigger, stockier kid for being inside at the slot, but that's obviously a position we like him in," offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said Thursday. "He's able to apply pressure on people with his size, and it's kind of a mismatch sometimes with either nickels or DBs out there." …

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USF offensive scheme veering toward clarity

First-year USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system is expected to combine a power run game with a vertical passing component.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

First-year USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system is expected to combine a power run game with a vertical passing component.

So far, we've seen it only in glimpses, fuzzy snapshots in the form of public scrimmages. All we know for sure is, it's fast, and maybe that's fitting in a way.

Because if we know nothing else about new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's offense, it's this: It has been a blur.

In 10 days, when the Bulls kick off their most anticipated season ever at San Jose State, we'll finally see the full picture. At that point, all the elements -- the pace, the power, the pass trajectory -- will be revealed.

Until then, we can only draw conclusions based on (A) Gilbert's history, and (B) what little we've seen to this point in practice.

With that in mind, we believe Bulls fans will see a solid likeness of the veer-and-shoot offense.

It's the spread variation Gilbert learned more than a decade ago at the foot of Art Briles, and polished under the employment of current Syracuse coach Dino Babers (at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green from 2012-14).

As this SB Nation story indicates, the veer-and-shoot differs from other spread schemes in that it's essentially an option offense with a vertical component. A power -- but not necessarily ball-control -- run game lulls defenses to the box, creating mismatches out wide.

And if linebackers get sucked into trying to stop the run, well, tight ends can find themselves quarantined.

Moreover, Gilbert is a proponent of having his players execute without thinking, a process he has termed "mind-muscle memory." Such a philosophy, of course, doesn't lend itself to a thick playbook.

Which might explain why the Bulls have no playbook. Quarterbacks have said Gilbert diagrams a play, and they copy it down themselves.

But there are still other hints. Girth up front is an obvious prerequisite for a power run game, and USF has it. …

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Q&A: USF lineman Billy Atterbury

Former CCC standout Billy Atterbury has practiced at guard and tackle for USF this preseason.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Former CCC standout Billy Atterbury has practiced at guard and tackle for USF this preseason.

On a practice day devoid of any significant drama (the Bulls worked out in shorts), we were afforded a few minutes with redshirt sophomore lineman Billy Atterbury, who could emerge as USF's most versatile offensive lineman. Here are excerpts from his media session.

We don't get to watch a lot of practice. Are you still double-training as a tackle and pulling guard?
"Coach (Matt Mattox) is moving a lot of us around right now. We've got a few guys (with some) little bumps and bruises. We've got a few guys that he's just trying to figure out where everyone is gonna work out at. I think we're all just trying to make the travel team, trying to do our best to get there."

I assume you primarily played tackle at Clearwater Central Catholic. How much guard did you play?
"Not really (laughs). I was at Countryside freshman year, and I played a little bit of that when I got moved up to varsity because I was still one of the shorter guys on that offensive line. This is something relatively new to me, but...whatever's best for the team, that's what all of us offensive linemen, we're not here for the glory. It's just a team, collective unit."

What was noticeably different about your offseason conditioning work to prepare for the pace you guys plan to run?
"Just a lot of cardio. I think that's the same with every team. A lot of running, a lot of just keeping the pace going. Because like you said, it's not one long sprint, one long mile run. It's every seven seconds, you've got to snap and be able to run 10 yards downfield, turn around and get back on the ball, and snap the ball seven seconds later. So it's a lot of quick turnaround, just very explosive, just seeing how much you can do, as fast as you can go."

So you'd do a lot of bursts, then get back to the ball?
"Absolutely. Coach (Pat) Moorer (strength and conditioning coach) definitely tries his best to get as much as he can out of us."

When you look at the fact that your team appears in another preseason poll almost daily, do you feel it more as a bay area kid? Do you want it more? You want the undefeated season more?
"Everyone says undefeated season, but as every player on this team will tell you, we're worried about San Jose (State), first game of the year. As a hometown kid who grew up watching this team, especially you want to do well, you want to show some hometown pride. But at the end of the day, it's about what Coach (Charlie Strong) says: every play, every quarter, every drive, every game."

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Fullwood, Valdes-Scantling return to practice for USF

Senior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (11) had 22 catches for 415 yards and five touchdowns last season.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Senior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (11) had 22 catches for 415 yards and five touchdowns last season.

The Bulls received two encouraging signs Monday when senior FS Tajee Fullwood and senior WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling practiced fully after missing part of the preseason with injuries.

Fullwood even had an interception during the portion of practice closed to reporters.

Valdes-Scantling hadn't practiced in full-squad drills since injuring his right leg after landing awkwardly during a route-running drill July 29. Fullwood suffered an ankle injury during an Aug. 5 scrimmage.

Elsewhere, senior WR Ryeshene Bronson (shoulder) didn't suit up again Monday, and still had his right arm in a sling. RB Duran Bell Jr., DE Kirk Livingstone, LB Andre Polk Jr. and RB Elijah Mack also spent Monday rehabbing injuries.

The Bulls are slated to practice six days this week (Monday-Saturday) before breaking camp and starting a conventional game-week schedule Sunday or Monday.

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Rags to roster: USF long snapper Zack Deitz is former manager

Steinbrenner High alumnus Zack Deitz, a student manager for the Bulls last season, is their new long snapper.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

Steinbrenner High alumnus Zack Deitz, a student manager for the Bulls last season, is their new long snapper.

He was a grunt, a gofer. Sometimes, Zack Deitz would be the first one to arrive on the USF practice field and last to leave, a routine borne not of nobility but job description.

That's what student managers do. Except one day, amid his series of mundane duties, Deitz proved he also can perform an essential one.

The Bulls specialists immediately took notice.

"He was actually out here one day and he's like, 'Hey, I can (long) snap,'" P Jonathan Hernandez recalled. "And we're like, 'All right, let's see it.' And so he did it and we were like, 'Wow, you should definitely come out next year,' because we knew we were losing (Alex) Salvato."

The Steinbrenner High alumnus practically has been snapping ever since. When the Bulls kick off the season at San Jose State in two Saturdays, the guy who spent last year washing uniforms will be wearing one.

"He's a local kid, he's bought into it and these kids have accepted him," Bulls special teams coach Justin Burke said. "He's been a really good part of our team. Doesn't say much, goes to work...we've just got to get him to be a little more aggressive is all."

Because Coach Charlie Strong typically doesn't permit rookies to speak with the media until they've appeared in a game, Deitz (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) was unavailable for comment after Monday's practice.

He long-snapped (and played linebacker and defensive end) at Steinbrenner as a senior in 2015 after missing his junior year due to ACL surgery. He also has played for USF's rugby team. (Here's some footage of him scoring in a recent match.)

Bulls equipment chief Jeremy Lees said Deitz's duties last season ranged from field setup to cleaning helmets and shoulder pads, to assisting coaches with drills. Like all student managers, he normally arrived a full two hours before the start of practice.

"He primarily worked with the special teams guys a little bit, which is kind of ironic," Lees said.

"He just came to us (shortly after the Birmingham Bowl) and said he wanted to walk on. We said, 'All right, good luck.' Obviously the team had a need so it was kind of a perfect fit."

He replaces one of the most consistent Bulls players of the last three seasons. Salvato, also diminutive at around 200 pounds, went at least two consecutive seasons without an errant snap, proving that arguably the most unheralded job in football isn't necessarily a thankless one.

Willie Taggart awarded Salvato a scholarship in the 2015 preseason.

"It's one of those deals that, if you invest in that position, it can be yours for a long time," Burke said. "It's a nerve-wracking deal for those guys, 'cause they have to invest in it and their team depends on 'em. So it takes some guts and some confidence to do it."

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USF journal: Defense draws praise, penalties

USF defensive back Naytron Culpepper (27) breaks up a pass intended for fellow freshman Kevaughn Dingle during the Bulls'  public scrimmage Saturday.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

USF defensive back Naytron Culpepper (27) breaks up a pass intended for fellow freshman Kevaughn Dingle during the Bulls' public scrimmage Saturday.

Exactly two weeks before its season opener, USF's once-maligned defense spent the better part of a soupy Saturday morning alternately giving their fans reason for excitement and expletives.

Which is to say, it made one play -- and penalty -- after another.

The Bulls recorded three interceptions and a fumble recovery (in the end zone, no less), holding the first- and second-team offenses mostly in check in a public situational scrimmage spanning roughly 90 minutes.

But for every pick, there was a personal foul. Or an offside whistle. Or a hold.

"We're gonna harp on those," said senior DT Bruce Hector, who had the fumble recovery, "and the next practice, we'll cut down on 'em."

Whistles aside, there was plenty defensively to encourage the audience of about 200, which grimaced its way through a forgettable '16 season in which USF allowed more than 480 yards a game. …

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USF sees mild decrease in season ticket sales

USF fans stormed the Raymond James Stadium field after the Bulls clinched bowl eligibility with a 44-23 win against Temple in 2015.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF fans stormed the Raymond James Stadium field after the Bulls clinched bowl eligibility with a 44-23 win against Temple in 2015.

Two weeks before the USF football season commences, the Charlie Strong effect still hasn't resulted in a spike in season-ticket sales.

The school reported Friday it has sold 14,074 season tickets, a modest dropoff from last season (15,973), when the Bulls' home slate included FSU, Navy and UCF. …

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USF journal: Is Jimmy Bayes ready to break out?

USF linebacker Jimmy Bayes (4) has played sparingly the last two seasons.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF linebacker Jimmy Bayes (4) has played sparingly the last two seasons.

At the dawn of his fourth season in the program, Bulls redshirt junior MLB Jimmy Bayes finally looks the part.

A sinewy 175-pounder upon arriving from Immokalee in 2014, Bayes currently is the Bulls' second-heaviest linebacker (230 pounds) behind only Auggie Sanchez (245). Accordingly, he has spelled Sanchez frequently this preseason, logging quality reps -- lots of 'em -- through the first three weeks of camp.

"Jimmy's been working," defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. "I'm gonna give him credit."

All of which leads to a far weightier issue: In a season when the Bulls need every capable linebacker they can develop, will this finally be the year when the pounds, potential and planets all align for Bayes?

"It's a perfect time, perfect environment," said Bayes, still seeking his first tackle in a USF uniform. "It's just a great year to build on. I've been bouncing around from different positions and stuff, and I finally feel like this is a good fit for me."

A multi-position force of nature at Immokalee (78 tackles, six forced fumbles as a senior), Bayes added 40 pounds his redshirt season in 2014, then made five cameo appearances (mostly on special teams) the following year. All the while, a stable role seemed to elude him; he appeared in one game in '16.

But with USF frighteningly thin at linebacker (Sanchez is the only player who has started a college game), a breakout for Bayes finally could be inevitable.

It might even be essential. "My confidence is rising," he said.

"He's been working, he's gotten a bunch of reps, and it's one of those things where he's just got to come on now," Jean-Mary said.

BRONSON SIDELINED: Senior WR Ryeshene Bronson had his right arm in a sling Friday and isn't expected to participate in Saturday's open practice at the Morsani Complex. Coach Charlie Strong could elaborate on the nature of the injury after Saturday's workout.

Toss in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (right leg), and two of the Bulls' projected starting pass-catchers are sidelined. Also rehabbing various ailments Friday were LB Andre Polk Jr. (hamstring), RB Duran Bell Jr. (left knee), OG Michael Wiggs, DE Kirk Livingstone and DE Vincent Jackson.

OPEN PRACTICE SATURDAY: Speaking of that open practice, it's slated to go from 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Morsani Complex. The Football Fan Day will follow immediately thereafter in the Sun Dome. Fan Day details can be found at this link.

ODDS AND ENDS: The first-team offensive line in Friday's 11-on-11 period open to reporters featured RT Billy Atterbury, RG Brooks Larkin, C Cameron Ruff, LG Jeremi Hall and LT Eric Mayes. Junior Tyre McCants and redshirt freshman DeVontres Dukes started out wide, with Deangelo Antoine in the slot. ... Jean-Mary on starting WLB Nico Sawtelle -- "He's been a pleasant surprise. He shows up on the productivity charts a lot." ... DE Josh Black, sidelined a good chunk of the preseason with an undisclosed injury, appeared to practice at full speed in Friday's padless practice. ... Jean-Mary said before Polk got injured, he "was really starting to come on." The hamstring injury doesn't appear serious.

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Willie Taggart's father dies

John Taggart, right, passed away Thursday night at the age of 70.

Times files

John Taggart, right, passed away Thursday night at the age of 70.

The father of former USF coach Willie Taggart has passed away.

Taggart, now coach at Oregon, confirmed his dad's death via Twitter late Thursday night. John Taggart, father of six, was 70.

Our Greg Auman wrote extensively about Taggart's parents -- who labored in vegetable fields and orange groves to support their family -- in this story published four summers ago.

"His dad was an exceptional individual. His parents, they were smart people, and they were awesome workers," said former Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Henry Lawrence, who worked the same Manatee County fields with Taggart's folks.

"If you beat Taggart in the fields, you'd done something. That was our standard back then." 

 

 

We lost a good man with passing of John Taggart, a hard working man who, along with Gloria, raised a beautiful family - Lots of family love!

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USF journal: Bulls seeking depth on defensive line

USF defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin works with Garry Cadet (44), Brandon Boyce (93) and Kevin Bronson (99) at Thursday's practice.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

USF defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin works with Garry Cadet (44), Brandon Boyce (93) and Kevin Bronson (99) at Thursday's practice.

Though USF entered the preseason with a solid foursome of defensive tackles in Bruce Hector, Deadrin Senat, Marlon Gonzalez and Kevin Bronson, one minor dilemma remains.

The Bulls need that quartet to become a quintet. …

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Sports Illustrated ranks USF ahead of Gators, 'Canes

Coach Charlie Strong and USF are ranked ahead of Florida and Miami in the Sports Illustrated preseason football top 25.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Coach Charlie Strong and USF are ranked ahead of Florida and Miami in the Sports Illustrated preseason football top 25.

The Bulls received their loftiest preseason ranking yet Wednesday, landing at No. 17 in Sports Illustrated's preseason top 25.

USF is one spot ahead of Florida and three ahead of Miami in the SI rankings. The Bulls' previous highest ranking was No. 18, by national numbers-cruncher Phil Steele.

Alabama is first according to SI, with FSU at No. 2.

The SI capsule on USF says: "The Bulls have the best chance of any Group of 5 team to run the table and steal a playoff spot—but their best non-conference opponent is Illinois (Sept. 15), so they’ll need chaos from the Power Five races. Their bye week falls between home tests against Houston (Nov. 4) and Tulsa (Nov. 16), which leads into a season finale at steadily improving rival UCF (Nov. 24)."

Here's the breakdown of where USF has been ranked in the most prominent polls/publications so far. The Associated Press preseason poll will be released Aug. 21.

Athlon: 24
Coaches poll: 21
The Sporting News: 22
Street & Smith's: 23
Phil Steele: 18

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USF journal: Oladokun back at practice, and a Holtz sighting

For the first time in two weeks, Bulls redshirt freshman QB Chris Oladokun participated in practice Wednesday.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

For the first time in two weeks, Bulls redshirt freshman QB Chris Oladokun participated in practice Wednesday.

For the first time in two weeks, Bulls redshirt freshman QB Chris Oladokun participated in practice, running with the third-team offense Wednesday morning.

Sources close to the Sickles High alumnus said late last week Oladokun has been battling mononucleosis. Possibly embracing the return of competition from Oladokun, backup QB Brett Kean was clinical in the 11-on- 11 session open to the media, scoring via a pass and run.

Meantime, senior WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, nursing a right leg injury for 11 days, didn’t participate in any live reps open to reporters, but was seen doing catching drills off to the side. Senior CB Tajee Fullwood, who injured his left ankle at Saturday’s practice, again didn't practice.

NO, NOT THAT HOLTZ: Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz -- once Charlie Strong's boss at both Notre Dame and South Carolina -- addressed the Bulls on Tuesday. Bucs icon Derrick Brooks followed with an appearance of his own Wednesday.
 
“I took away climbing that mountain every day,” TE Kano Dillon said of Brooks' talk.

“They had a championship team ('02 Bucs), and then the next year they fell off (7-9) because they we’re already on top of that mountain. They didn’t re-climb it in the beginning of the next year. That translates to us because of the season we had last year, and people putting us on a high pedestal.

"We have to climb that mountain again and not fall off."

AUDIBLE: "At 270 pounds, he’s a load now, and then he can run like he can. You saw at the spring game he made a play near the two-minute mark and he almost pulled away from everybody. I think that shows that he has some special talent that not everybody else has. He has the length, the bulk, so now I think it’s just a matter of getting him confident and making sure he knows he’s the biggest, baddest guy on the field." – tight Ends coach Justin Burke on Dillon

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Stan Heath lands new coaching gig in Lakeland

Stan Heath was dismissed as USF men's basketball coach in 2014.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Stan Heath was dismissed as USF men's basketball coach in 2014.

More than three years after his dismissal from USF, Stan Heath has landed another head coaching gig.

Essentially in the Bulls' backyard.

Heath, who has spent the last two seasons as a Boston College assistant, on Tuesday was named coach of the Lakeland Magic, the Orlando Magic's G-League affiliate. Former NBA journeyman Anthony Parker, who has spent the past five years as a Magic scout, was named Lakeland's general manager.

"With Anthony (Parker) and Stan (Heath), we have established solid basketball leadership for our G-League team in Lakeland," Stan Weltman, Orlando's president of basketball operations, said in a news release.

The Lakeland Magic begins its inaugural season in November and will play 24 home games at the RP Funding Center (formerly the Lakeland Center). The Magic purchased the franchise -- previously known as the Erie BayHawks -- in December before relocating it.

Heath, 52, led three programs (Kent State, Arkansas, USF) to the NCAA Tournament and owns a 209-206 head coaching record. His 2012 Bulls club, widely considered the best in school history, finished 22-13 and reached the NCAA tourney's round of 32.

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