JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The boy-girl mascots of the University of North Florida are named Ozzie and Harriet. They're two sea hawks, or rather ospreys
, and they wear the numbers 19 and 72 to commemorate their school's opening year. The names are kind of a weird joke, because when UNF started, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
had been off the air for six years, and was a dated relic of a lost age by the time the school was finally big enough to field sports teams in the 1980's.
Then again, there's something about college that makes you try to be older than you actually are
, without the complications of actual age. UNF is a young school with lots of imported history, and that's doubly true of its Division I status. The Ospreys began their D-I life during the 2005-06 season, as one of the handful of D-II expats that joined the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Your reporter is exactly as old as the University of North Florida, and has something of a history with the basketball program as well. Last year, I followed the team for a weeklong road trip through South Carolina, and used the Ospreys as the centerpiece of an article about early-season "guarantee games."
Later, I was there for the team's first D-I road win in 45 tries.
I'll never forget the sight of head coach Matt Kilcullen fighting back tears, carefully cradling the boxscore printout in his hands so that he could frame it for his office wall.
Kilcullen led the program up from Division II and through four tough transitional years that featured 20 total wins against 96 losses, and an RPI that was never better than 326. By the time I finally made it to UNF Arena last night, he had been reassigned to a fundraising position in the athletic department and I didn't get a chance to ask him if I could see that framed boxscore. He wasn't around for the Ospreys' first home game under Matthew Driscoll
, the longtime Baylor assistant who's getting his first D-I shot.
This is North Florida's first season as a fully-fledged Division I member, the first time the Ospreys are technically eligible for the NCAA Tournament... not that it technically matters, though. It's a rebuilding team that starts three freshmen, and UNF will have the same problems winning out on the road that it always had, as evidenced by a 21-point season-opening money game loss out at Notre Dame
That was all of little concern to the UNF students, who packed the student section, brought signs for their favorite players, and carried collapsible blue-and-grey vinyl banners that said "Swoop!" on them. The cheerleaders cheered just as boisterously as they would for a team that was 1-0 and not 0-1, and Ozzie ran through the crowd giving everybody high-fives.
The Ospreys are their team, from their school, and things like RPI and preseason polls and analyst expectations don't mean anything to them right now. They didn't get the memo that they aren't supposed to care. They just want to yell their lungs out for their boys.
And yes, they did! North Florida was caught in a tight, low-scoring game with Savannah State. The Tigers are Division I independents who went 0-28 just five seasons ago, but broke through with a 15-14 season last year under Horace Broadnax. UNF-Savannah has been an evenly-matched series since both teams have been D-I members, with the home club winning each of the five previous meetings. On this night, the gathering of 1,500 hung on every possession -- yelling and screaming just as loud, person for person, as any 15,000-strong power conference crowd.
It's easy to judge college basketball teams with the exacting mind of an analyst, to take the wide-angle view and rank teams from best to worst. But when it's a single game detached from the overall gestalt, with two teams on the court right in front of you, it's easier to abandon logic and rational thought, to let the exuberance and joy of youth win out over the cold curse of experience.
And against a fellow Division I opponent -- one coming off a winning record, no less -- the Ospreys started to look like real world-beaters. UNF held its guests to nine minutes without a point in a stretch that spanned halftime, and the home team raced out to a double-digit lead in the late stages.
The student section went nuts. They jumped up and down. The super-fans in their tie-dyed "Prey Nation" t-shirts waved towels over their heads. "Ho-race suuucks!" they all chanted. "Ho-race suuuuuuucks!
" The Ospreys were playing like true basketball heroes, looking nothing like the milquetoasts of the past four years.
And if there's any magic at all in November basketball, it was present last night in Jacksonville. Sure, every season starts out beautiful and unblemished at 0-0 (0-0) -- a blank slate of anticipation and possibility. But for nearly all of the teams in the Other 24, the beauty fades rapidly as the ugliness of lopsided reality sets in.
But sometimes, November will allow a team like North Florida can keep the illusion alive just a little bit longer. They can extend the expiration date on hope, and keep the dream intact for another night. For one game, the Ospreys looked like they could hit 3-pointers at will, like they could force temp and outrebound anybody. And if you let your heart go, you might even start believing what those students believe.
An hour and 45 minutes after tip-off, with the game over and the Ospreys the 57-46 pullaway victors
, the crowd spilled out into the warm Florida night, still buzzing happily as they dispersed across the sprawling UNF campus. There will be plenty of outside forces that will break the spell later, and plenty of time to contemplate negative comparisons. Don't tell them that their team is awful; let them have their November moment.