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Books before baskets

With a handful of USF men’s basketball players looking on while their teammates ran sprints after sprints at the conclusion of a February practice, the relief on their faces from attending their required hours of study hall was paying off for them on the court.

At the end of the spring semester, all the hard work and discipline by first-year coach Robert McCullum and his staff had paid dividends off the court.

While the team compiled a 7-20 overall record — good enough for last in C-USA — the Bulls had their fewest wins since the 1988-89 season.

However, there was one high to the season, one that hasn’t been seen since 1994, and it came on the academic side of the student-athlete life.

The Bulls recorded a team grade point average of 2.84 during spring of 2004, the highest by the men’s basketball squad since ’94.

While Phyllis Lebaw, associate athletic director for academic services, has led the Bulls in the classroom in the past, McCullum took over the program and made academics a priority.

“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment because that’s the primary reason (the student-athlete is) here,” McCullum said. “First and foremost is to try and become the best student they can and try and earn a degree.”

While the team made improvements on the court that only the coaching staff and the few who followed the team from the beginning of the season to the end could see, they also made improvements within, showing a newfound responsibility sparsely seen in past men’s basketball players.

“I think it’s a great reflection on our program that guys are working as hard academically, and their focus first and foremost is academics,” McCullum said. “I think it’s a sign of growth and maturity and responsibility that they’re able to manage their time in such a way that their academics won’t suffer because of commitments to basketball.”

McCullum encouraged their senses of responsibility toward grades by adding new disciplines, such as extra running and delegation to the bench during games.

“It’s a combination of things,” McCullum said. “It’s just an area that we placed emphasis on. We put a great deal of emphasis on academics. If guys don’t go to class, there’s a consequence; if they don’t go to study hall, there’s a consequence.”

McCullum and his staff also paid close attention to those students he felt were struggling, stepping in on Lebaw’s program and adding extra assistance.

“It all starts with Phyllis Lebaw. She has a system in place and a program to provide the resources, leadership and direction, and she does a great job creating an atmosphere that makes it more conducive to learning,” McCullum said. “Our staff, we try to assist her. We identify a few of the student athletes that we think might need additional assistance, and those three or four players might meet with a coach on a daily basis.”

Another McCullum discipline the team faced this year was the possibility of not having their summer school paid for.

If a student-athlete didn’t pass 24 credit hours during the fall and spring semester, the basketball program would not pay for summer tuition.

“We let the players know that we weren’t going to pay for summer school if they weren’t academically eligible,” McCullum said. “You have to pass a minimum 24 semester hours during the school year.

“We felt strongly that every one of them were capable of passing at least 24 during fall and spring.”

Along with the various disciplines put forth by Lebaw and McCullum, changes to reduce travel time were also enacted. McCullum worked the budget — sacrificing things such as extra uniforms — to make room for more charter flights, something USF hasn’t had in the past.

“We took some charter flights, and as a result our guys missed less classes that they would have had missed,” McCullum said. “I clearly requested that and (former Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon) clearly understood the importance of why we wanted to take a charter; (he) thought it was well worth it.”

The players were able to keep up their academic standings despite losing throughout most of the season.

“To be able to have the kind of academic success we did despite losing all the games we did, that says a lot.” McCullum said. “Losing sometimes trickles into other areas, and when you’re not winning it tends to affect academic performance.”

While McCullum has raised the academic standards of the men’s basketball team just one year after he learned it had put out the lowest team GPA of any sports on campus, he said he would like to see the numbers go even higher in the future.

“The university academically is a very competitive university,” McCullum said.

“I believe strongly that our guys can do even better academically.”