Big East basketball: How good can Bulls be?
USF's men's basketball team opens Big East play on Wednesday night at Louisville, and after a 10-2 nonconference record, the Bulls are optimistic of reaching unprecedented success in league play. The question that remains: Just how many conference games can the Bulls win out of 18 possible?
USF's RPI rating, according to CollegeRPI.com, is 108th nationally, which is relatively strong for the Bulls since joining the Big East. What's tough is that RPI rating ranks 13th among the 16 Big East schools -- the league has six teams in the RPI top 25, in West Virginia (4), Connecticut (6), Syracuse (9), Villanova (15), Georgetown (17) and St. John's (25). There's a big dropoff from Pittsburgh (33) to a bunch of teams probably on the outside of the NCAA bubble looking in -- Louisville (68), Cincinnati (72), Seton Hall (75), Notre Dame (85), Marquette (104) and then USF at 108. The only schools ranking lower are Providence (125), Rutgers (150) and DePaul (177).
The highest RPI team the Bulls have faced this season is South Carolina (58), which barely beat the Bulls in Charleston. USF has two wins against top-100 opponents in Kent State (somehow 64) and Central Florida (86), and the Bulls' other loss is against Central Michigan (220). Of the Bulls' other eight wins, just three -- San Diego (117), Davidson (141) and UNC-Wilmington (153) -- are against RPI top-200 teams.
The Bulls, remember, will have point guard Anthony Crater for all but two Big East games, and should have forward Gus Gilchrist for 12 or so games, though there's no telling how completely he'll recover from his severely sprained ankle. Center Alex Rivas should provide additional depth at some point next month.
What will help the Bulls some is that of the three "mirror" opponents, which USF plays both home and away, none are currently in the top half of the league in terms of RPI. The Bulls play twice against Cincinnati (72), Notre Dame (85) and Providence (125).
USF's players have set a goal of finishing .500 in league play -- going 9-9 after totaling 11 wins in four seasons in the conference would make the Bulls one of the biggest stories in the BIg East.
A more realistic goal might be a 7-11 mark, which would have USF 17-13 entering the Big East tournament and in strong position for an NIT berth. The Bulls could get to seven wins by splitting the three mirror series, getting home wins against Rutgers and Seton Hall, winning at DePaul or Marquette, then sneaking a home upset against St. John's or Pittsburgh.
That doesn't require the Bulls to win any of their five toughest league games -- at Syracuse, Villanova or Georgetown, and at home against West Virginia or Connecticut. USF would need to go 6-4 against the bottom half of the league in the current RPI ratings.
Thoughts? How many wins do you think is a realistic expectation for Stan Heath's team, given its nonconference record?