The Dons made their first National Invitational Tournament appearance since 1976 last Wednesday when they defeated the University of Denver 69-67 in a wire-to-wire, home-game thriller that USF's John Cox -- a 6-foot-5-inch-tall guard who is the son of former Don great Chubby Cox and the cousin to Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant -- dominated late. But the Dons lost to Cal State Fullerton 85-69 in the second round, finishing a 17-13 season with a game in which they were truly outplayed.
And there is little about the season or abbreviated post-season that does not point toward renewal of a once-storied basketball power.
A small Catholic college just north of the Golden Gate Park's Panhandle, USF hasn't been renowned of late for its sports teams. Once upon a time not so long ago, though, it was a basketball power on par with Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky. In 1949, the Dons won the National Invitational Tournament championship, when it was a much more prestigious event than it is now. In 1955 and '56, USF won back-to-back championships, led by would-be NBA greats Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, the Dons were regular participants in the NCAA tournament.
But the basketball program was canceled for three years in the early 1980s because of academic scandal and recruiting violations. Even after reinstatement, it was something of an afterthought for several years.
The Dons regained a semblance of hoops respectability under Coach Phil Matthews, who took USF to the NCAA tournament in 1998, where the team lost in the first round to the University of Utah. A fiery coach whose courtside antics could have made Bobby Knight blush, Matthews was defensive-minded and, it was generally acknowledged, got the most out of his players. But his sideline antics hurt him in recruiting local high school talent.
Last year, the Dons were 17-14 overall and 7-7 in league play. But they didn't make it to the post-season. After nine years with Matthews as coach, USF Athletic Director Bill Hogan felt it was time to upgrade.
After an unsuccessful attempt to hire Purdue coaching legend Gene Keady, Hogan interviewed seven other head coaches and high-level assistant coaches from major college programs. But he went with Jessie Evans from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, a dignified, slightly balding black man who stands 6 feet 4 inches and has broad shoulders, a commanding presence, and a welcoming personality that seems to work with players and alumni alike.
He also has a real basketball pedigree.
Born and raised in Pontiac, Mich., Evans was an all-state basketball player at Pontiac Central High School, earning a basketball scholarship to Eastern Michigan University. Evans was a big guard who could run a team. "I was called the jumping jack from Pontiac," Evans recalls. "I had ups, but I couldn't shoot."
He didn't have to. George "the Iceman" Gervin, one of the greatest NBA scorers in history, was a teammate. "When you played with a guy like the Iceman, you didn't shoot," said Evans. "You learned how to get him the ball."
After graduating in 1972, Evans played two years in the Continental Basketball Association, a sort of basketball minor league, one as a player coach, before he got into coaching full-time at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich., where over three years his teams had a record of 57-18 and finished as runners-up for the state title in 1975.
University of Minnesota coach Jim Dutcher hired Evans as an assistant, and he worked there for five years. In that time, the team averaged 20 wins per year, and Evans became known as a master recruiter, helping to bring future NBA players such as Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson, and Randy Breuer into the program.
In the next few years, Evans worked at Long Beach State under Tex Winter, the famed founder of the triangle offense that helped Michael Jordan to six NBA championships; at San Diego State, where he helped develop future NBA standout Michael Cage; and at Wyoming, where he coached under Jim Brandenberg and recruited Fennis Dembo, a college all-American who went on to the NBA.
In 1986, Evans joined the coaching staff at Texas before finally making his home at Arizona following the Wildcats 1988 Final Four trip. Arizona would be the Evans family's home for the next seven years, as Evans experienced success working under legendary coach Lute Olsen.
At Arizona, Evans was the head assistant coach, serving as recruiting coordinator and assisting in all aspects of the Wildcats program. He recruited 14 Arizona players who have played in the NBA, including Mike Bibby of the Sacramento Kings, Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks, Damon Stoudamire of the Portland Trailblazers, and Richard Jefferson of the New Jersey Nets.
Arizona averaged 27 victories per season during Evans' stint, winning the 1997 national championship. In seven subsequent years as head coach of Louisiana-Lafayette, Evans' teams went 132-81, won 20 games in four different seasons and made four post-season appearances.
Evans was seen as the kind of recruiter who could attract talent to a small school and take the Dons to the next level in college basketball. In his first year at USF, his team played an exciting style of run-and-gun basketball that created a buzz among college basketball fans in the Bay Area.
"During the season, season ticket sales were up 20 percent from last year," USF Athletic Director Hogan says. "The up-and-down-style of play is fun to watch for fans, and it is a style that will attract top talent. We are already in a top league, and we want to get back on top."
But the glory days didn't return immediately. The Dons had a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs this year, going on a seven-game winning streak at one point, but also getting pounded by 44 points by Bobby Knight's Texas Tech. They lost several games they should have won and came in fifth place in league play.
"We had some peaks and valleys this year as a team," Evans said. "We beat some really good teams. But we had some injuries that hurt us. Had we not had those injuries, we could have been better."
Evans believes the Dons' NIT appearance has already bolstered USF basketball. "Getting to the NIT puts a stamp on our program," said Evans. "It lets people know that, hey, we are good. This win will help in recruiting better players to come and play for USF."
Evans joined the Dons late in the recruiting season and has not had time to bring in the a full complement of recruits who can play his system. Just the same, the Dons clearly are looking for more than the NIT next year.
Among the returning players are sophomores Alan Wiggins, a lanky 6-foot-9-inch forward who is an active rebounder, and Jerome Gumbs, an unselfish 6-foot-4-inch guard.
Armondo Surratt, an all world point guard from Oakland, transferred from the University of Miami at the start of the year. He had to sit out this year, but will be able to play in the fall. Evans also signed Danny Cavic, a 6-foot-6-inch forward from Santa Ana Junior College; Drew Shiller, a heady, 6-foot point guard from Burlingame High; and James Morgan, a 6-foot-9-inch power forward from Seattle, Wash.
"Evans has signed some solid players, which will give them some of the stuff they need to build USF's program," says Gerry Frietas of Hoop Review, a scouting service that rates college basketball prospects. "Shiller and Cavic will provide much-needed shooting, which will be a shot in the arm for the program, while Surratt has a chance to be a real impact player in that conference.
"I think they are on the right track."