Can South Florida take the next step?

South Florida coach Stan Heath had a pretty good Fourth of July weekend. While you were grilling meats and laying on the lake and driving around in the countryside looking at fireworks -- or, you know, whatever you were doing -- Heath was locking down a three-year contract extension from his employers in Tampa, Fla. The new deal will take Heath's original five-year contract, which he signed with the school in 2007, all the way to 2015. It also nets him a tidy little 33 percent raise; his new deal will average about $900,000 a year.

It's not chump change for a school like USF, whose athletics programs are in many ways still in a larvae stage. That goes especially for basketball. The Bulls made only their ninth-ever postseason appearance in 2010. It was the school's seventh NIT appearance. Other than a pair of NCAA tournament spots in the early 1990s, spots which eventually propelled the program into the Big East, South Florida has struggled in hoops.

The question, then, is whether the Bulls' 2010 run was the result of a supremely talented player -- Dominique Jones, naturally -- taking the Bulls on his back, or whether Heath's program has the long-term pieces to continue its run into the competitive sectors of the Big East. There's no arguing just how good Jones was: The junior averaged 21.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in his final year before leaving for NBA glory. The Bulls will also lose senior guards Chris Howard and Mike Mercer and their combined 19.5 points per game. The 2009-10 Bulls were an upperclassmen-dominated squad with a bonafide star, and fringe status on the cusp of the NCAA bubble -- with an eventual NIT berth instead -- was the ceiling. It was a solid season, but the Bulls didn't exactly set the world ablaze.

There is good news, though. Like so many other schools hoping to compete in the big-time world of college basketball -- and with some relativity taken into account, that seems to be the Bulls' goal -- South Florida is building a brand new multicourt practice facility adjacent to the Sun Dome. There are also plans to renovate the aging Dome, part of $33 million in facility upgrades South Florida is making in its athletic facilities in the coming year.

The resources are there. The facilities are coming. Heath is now being paid more like a quality high major coach than one with a school bereft of basketball history altogether. South Florida is a Big East basketball school. There's talent coming from and going in to Tampa. But until the Bulls reach the NCAA tournament -- no easy feat in the Big East, to be sure -- the school will remain a hoops also-ran, one where a single 20-win season and an NIT berth can net its head coach a raise and an extension. Let's see if Heath and the Bulls can raise those stakes.