The Bulls success on the court and the football field has unleashed a “Sleeping Giant.” USF’s massive Tampa Bay area alumni base can’t get enough of their team.

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South Florida forward Corey Walker Jr. (15) brings the ball up court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Charlotte on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley)

TAMPA, Fla. (March 23, 2024) – Once more, the Yuengling Center will roar. Once more, the joint will be jumping. Fans of USF men’s basketball can watch their record-setting Bulls continue making a statement that is now almost impossible to ignore.

When the Bulls (25-7) face the VCU Rams (23-13) in Sunday night’s National Invitation Tournament second-round game, it’s expected to be USF’s fourth consecutive crowd of near sellout capacity, attracting a mixture of hard-core veteran fans, curiosity-seekers who can’t resist the buzz and the ever-present rowdiness of the SoFlo Rodeo student section.

“I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m alive and all of this is real,’’ said longtime prominent USF booster Les Muma, whose family’s contributions have made possible many campus academic and athletic landmarks, including the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center practice facility.

“We’ve got one hell of a coach. We’ve got a bunch of talented players who have gelled together as a team. And now we’ve got a game-day atmosphere that’s as good as any in the country. When I look up there and see all those kids (SoFlo Rodeo) jammed into their seats, making noise and going wild, it just fires me up so much. We’re floating on a cloud ride now. We do not want this ride to end.’’

USF rode a 15-game winning streak and the program’s first national ranking to earn the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship. After bowing out of the AAC Tournament semifinals, the Bulls were bypassed for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid on Selection Sunday. And despite its powerful credentials, USF was relegated to the road for an NIT first-round date at “War On I-4’’ rival UCF.

Tuesday’s final from Orlando: Bulls 83, Knights 77.

“For playing USF for the first time (this season) and seeing them on film, it did not do justice for how strong they are offensively and their ability to shoot the basketball,’’ UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They moved the ball and shared it. They have a lot of guys who can knock down shots. When they got open and took their shots, they made us pay.’’

When UAB (the AAC Tournament champion) and Florida Atlantic (last season’s Final Four team) were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in Friday’s first round, it left only the Bulls and North Texas (last season’s NIT champions) as AAC postseason teams.

“Of course, we felt we should’ve been in there (NCAA field),’’ Bulls coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said. “But we’re not going to complain. We’re not going to cry about it. I’m in the business of building men. How you handle disappointment — not just now, but later in life — will determine your success. How do we deal with it? We get back to work. And we take advantage of the opportunity that we have here in the NIT by showing what our program represents.’’

It represents a versatile, athletic, 3-point shooting, battle-tested, and prideful lineup.

It represents a USF athletic department that is making a quantum leap toward collective prosperity.

And it represents a super-charged student section — the crown jewel of a fan base hoping to help USF extend its home-court winning streak to 14 — that is adored by Abdur-Rahim and his players.

“God gave us the NIT, so we’re going to keep playing for each other and go for this championship,’’ said Bulls forward Corey Walker Jr. “Right now, I don’t feel anyone can beat us. That SoFlo Rodeo and the crowd is giving us all the juice we need.’’

NOT THEIR FIRST RODEO

The SoFlo Rodeo’s genesis dates back to last season when the USF athletic department took steps to raise awareness and improve its student section. There was significant participation. Mike Minyard, the Associate Athletics Director of Marketing and Fan Engagement, was instrumental in the coordination throughout the past three home games. Students wearing the slime-green SoFlo Rodeo T-shirts have spilled throughout the arena’s end zones — at all three levels — to create a dizzying, frenetic, and fun atmosphere.

But this season, the mania has reached unprecedented levels.

Tyler Moss, a USF senior majoring in integrated public relations and advertising who formerly organized the school’s club hockey program, has become the group’s student marketer and visionary.

“The students have shown a lot of joy and we obviously wanted that,’’ Moss said. “But I think we all undervalued what the alumni and other fans would think of SoFlo Rodeo. I didn’t understand the magnitude of how they would be impacted by seeing the love of our school being expressed.

“We showed some photos (on social media) of old student sections when they did the ‘Death Row’ theme. And there was such a passionate response. People said, ‘Hey, I did that 30 years ago.’ And you know what? The SoFlo Rodeo members right now are making memories that will make them happy and nostalgic when they are alumni. I hope we can keep things going and there will still be a SoFlo Rodeo then because carrying this over from year to year — and making it even bigger — will mean everything.’’

Abdur-Rahim said he grew up watching college basketball and witnessing student sections such as Duke’s “Cameron Crazies,’’ knowing that such an environment represented the sport’s zenith.

Now it’s at USF.

“The SoFlo Rodeo is a true blessing to our program,’’ said Abdur-Rahim, who has descended into the end-zone student section after victories to dance, visit, take selfies, and conduct the Herd of Thunder pep band. “When I’m coaching, I’m kind of in the zone. But it’s hard not to hear our crowds over the last few weeks.

“It has been incredible. As Michael Kelly (vice president of athletics) always says, ‘We are Tampa Bay’s Home for Hoops.’ I love watching the NBA, but we are the high-level basketball team of Tampa Bay. And our games have exactly what you dream about when you want the passion, heart, and competitiveness of college basketball at its highest level.’’

Long-time USF fans and supporters have noticed the difference in atmosphere — and they love it.

“You’re always going to have the loyal, hard-core fans like me, who show up through thick and thin,’’ said Richard Yost, who has been a USF basketball season-ticket holder since the Lee Rose era (1980-86). “To have this level of student support, it changes everything. There’s the basketball and you cheer when something good happens. But now we’re watching the student section. What will they do next? The students are alive. And the players are also students, right? So that energy translates. It’s the level of excitement and pride that adds so much enjoyment.’’

“I don’t know who’s responsible for putting the SoFlo Rodeo together, but they have done a phenomenal job,’’ longtime USF booster David Goldstein said. “This whole thing has been incredible, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see. The students are not only there, but they’re fully engaged. The whole thing — the aura, the colors, the noise — is like something I’ve never experienced in our building. I truly believe it has contributed to the winning this season.’’

PLAYERS FEEL THE ENERGY

Moss said there’s a definite “SoFlo Rodeo Effect’’ at USF home games.

He studied games in the second semester and found that USF opponents were converting just 68 percent of their free-throw attempts at the Yuengling Center (which would be 301st out of 351 Division I teams if it was a season-long NCAA statistic). But when opponents shot into the SoFlo Rodeo section during the second half, the free-throw percentage dropped to 62 percent (or the equivalent of 348th nationally).

“We are impacting the game,’’ Moss said. “We might be worth three or four points — and that’s huge.’’

Bulls players can’t quantify the meaning of an active student section, but they agree that it makes a difference.

“It’s like you never get tired or you never feel fatigued,’’ guard Chris Youngblood said. “If I ever feel tired, I just look up into the crowd and see those faces. It makes us want to show toughness and discipline to get this thing done. I love our arena. It helps us big-time and makes a difference.’’

“The support means a ton because you are motivated not to disappoint all those fans and students,’’ guard Jose Placer said. “You want to put on a good show for them, while representing your family and your university in the right way.’’

“The fans can help change the momentum of a game,’’ guard Selton Miguel said. “That noisy arena can distract the other team, but it gives us fuel. We love that SoFlo Rodeo! Those are the people who give us the strength.’’

Abdur-Rahim notices the difference, too.

“When you walk onto our court, I feel like our players acquire energy,’’ Abdur-Rahim said. “When you watch the NCAA Tournament, you find out who the real teams are during the second half. Hey, everybody is excited to play the first half. But who has the stamina, the focus, and the endurance over the course of that 40 minutes?

“Now we get the opportunity to play a home game in the NIT. We need that crowd. We need their energy. Think about it. It has been November, December, January, February, March … back to when we started practice, that’s about seven months. Our dudes are beat up, but they keep working. The fans are a part of this. We’re doing this together. And we love our people. We love them and we appreciate them.’’

You can find Muma, a man whose support is synonymous with USF basketball, in his customary floor seats. He has loved basketball since he played at Winter Haven High School. He always believed in the potential of building something very big at USF, but that belief was often challenged.

Now he can’t wait for the bonus game at the Yuengling Center. Sunday night, the SoFlo Rodeo rides again. A big-time college basketball atmosphere is alive and well in Tampa Bay.

“I don’t have to tell anybody, ‘Well, I told you so,’ ‘’ Muma said. “I’m just sitting back and smiling, taking it all in. The good times are here. We have become an AAU (academic) school, which means so much, but I believe having a good football program and a good basketball program is an equally important part of the equation.

“I’ve got my jet all tuned up to take it to as many cities as necessary to chase this. It has been a dream season. We’re all hoping it’s just the beginning.’’

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About USF Men’s Basketball

The South Florida men’s basketball team is led by Amir Abdur-Rahim, who was named the 11th head coach in program history on March 29, 2023. Abdur-Rahim was named the 2023 Mid-Major Coach of the Year (Hugh Durham Award) after leading Kennesaw State to its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament berth in 2022-23. Abdur-Rahim’s Kennesaw State team set an NCAA record as the fastest team to ever reach the NCAA Tournament after a one-win campaign, accomplishing the feat in a span of just three seasons. He was also named the 2022-23 NABC District 3 and ASUN Coach of the Year after leading Kennesaw State to both the regular season and tournament titles, and a school-record 26 wins.
 
USF has retired three numbers in its history: Chucky Atkins (12), Charlie Bradley (30), and Radenko Dobras (31). The Bulls have earned three NCAA tournament bids, appeared in the NIT eight times, and won the 2019 College Basketball Invitational.
 
For tickets, contact the USF Ticket Office at 1-800-Go-Bulls or by going online to 
USFBullsTix.com. Season tickets for the 2023-24 USF men’s basketball slate are on sale now. To purchase season tickets, click here.