TAMPA -- Bobby Paschal is ready to throw the word "potential" out of his vocabulary. The architect of the dramatic turnaround in South Florida's basketball program prefers to talk about more tangible things.
"We are doing fairly well, so I think that makes this a situation where we really don't have to use that word anymore," said Paschal, who's in his fifth season at the Sun Belt Conference school, which hosts Maryland Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
"Our goal from the start has been to develop a solid, stable program -- not try to put together one good team," he added. "We've accomplished that, and I really think all the ingredients are here to sustain the success and continue to move forward."
Paschal left Southwestern Louisiana in 1986 to replace Lee Rose, who led South Florida to a 106-69 record in six seasons but never won the Sun Belt championship or took the Bulls to the NCAA tournament.
The program went through 8-20, 6-22, 7-21 seasons before Paschal turned the team around in 1989-90. The Bulls won 17 regular season games, then captured the Sun Belt tournament to finish with 20 victories and earn the league's automatic spot in the NCAA field.
Although Arizona beat South Florida in the first round of the West Regional, the program is riding high. Attendance is up this season, the climate for recruiting has improved, and the Bulls defeated Western Kentucky last Saturday, 87-86, to equal the best start (11-1) in school history.
"People always recognized what could happen here, but the one thing they weren't real sure of was whether we could win a conference championship and play in the NCAA tournament," said Paschal, who was 153-85 in eight years at Southwestern Louisiana. "Now that question has been answered."
Four starters returned from last season's team, but the key to the Bulls' fast getaway has been the emergence of Gary Alexander, who missed all of last season after having reconstructive knee surgery.
Alexander is averaging 16.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game to make up for the loss of Hakim Shahid, whose rebounding and scoring was instrumental in last season's success.
Point guard Marvin Taylor is the only senior starter. Fred Lewis, Radenko Dobras, Bobby Russell and Alexander are juniors.
"The league is strong enough that any of the teams can have a say, and there are four or five teams that could have a chance to win. Hopefully we're one of those four or five," said Paschal, whose team has beaten non-conference foes Florida and Penn State.
"We have a great deal of respect for the teams we've faced," he said. "But when you prepare, work hard and plan to do the very best you can, there's no way you can be surprised if you have a reasonable amount of success."