Bulls calmly relish chance for big win at Louisville
TAMPA -- Stan Heath had been relatively relaxed in the moments before Sunday's game against Cincinnati, that is, until he was reminded of the sheer significance of the run his Bulls team has been making.
"My athletic director, Doug Woolard, grabbed me before the game and said 'This is the biggest game in our history, you know that?'" Heath joked after his Bulls (18-11, 11-5 in Big East) pulled out a 46-45 thriller. "I got really nervous after that."
Today, as the Bulls see a huge opportunity -- and a difficult challenge -- playing at No. 19 Louisville, a major part of why they're in the national spotlight is the way Heath's players haven't gotten caught up in the hoopla of their rise to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
"They've done a great job of just focusing on the next task," Heath said Tuesday, knowing well that one quality win could solidify the Bulls' NCAA chances tremendously. "They know that our league is so good, the teams are so talented that if you take a night off, you really don't give yourself a chance. They lock in on the next opponent, and that's the way it should be."
This opponent isn't one Heath worries about overlooking -- USF's history against Louisville isn't a pretty one. The Bulls are 3-25 all-time against the Cards, having lost 11 in a row. They've won only once ever at Louisville, in 1998, but Heath said his team won't lack for confidence.
"This is a little different Louisville team than in the past. They've always had great talent," Heath said. "I think this team maybe doesn't have the same kind of depth as Louisville teams past. Because of that, I'm not sure they can go 40 minutes straight of pressing and really attacking you the way they've done in the past."
Relatively speaking, Louisville is vulnerable -- the Cardinals have already lost three Big East games at home, the most they've dropped since their first season in the conference in 2005-06. In the last two weeks, they've played close games -- last-place DePaul took them to overtime, and a Pittsburgh team that USF swept lost by only three points this week. The Cardinals lost at Cincinnati, which then came to Tampa and lost to the Bulls on Sunday.
USF has picked up national attention as one of the most compelling teams on the NCAA bubble, having overcome early injuries and nonconference struggles to be battling for a top-four seed and double-bye in the Big East tournament. They haven't stumbled in a full two months -- since Dec. 28, they haven't lost to an unranked opponent, something only Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina can boast.
Tonight is a different challenge -- stepping up and beating a ranked opponent on the road, potentially filling that biggest hole in their NCAA resume. They'll have another chance a key win Saturday at home against West Virginia, but for now, their focus is squarely on Louisville and the historic opportunity that presents them.
"The plays we're making out there, I feel like they're not really plays for us," senior Ron Anderson said after the Cincinnati win. "They're plays for the university, for the overall success of the program, really."