Bulls get one last shot at big win vs. 'Nova
TAMPA -- College basketball gives its teams nothing but wins or losses, so it's fitting that USF will leave Madison Square Garden this week with one of two things: a very unlikely Big East championship, or a school record for losses in a season.
It has been a long year for Stan Heath and his 9-22 Bulls, who have consistently played close to the league's best teams for about 30 minutes, only to fade late in the second half with little to show for their effort but the hollow consolation of a close loss. Tonight gives the Bulls another opportunity for the upset that has escaped them all season, with an opening-round showdown with 10th-seeded Villanova.
"It's been difficult, because we haven't figured out a way to play for 40 minutes, to turn things up down the stretch, to get the stops and scores you need to win those games," Heath said by phone Monday. "We know now that you win, you keep playing. That's the exciting part about this tournament."
The Wildcats (21-10) are that rare team that could have a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament than in their conference; Villanova opened the year 16-1 but has since gone 5-9 in Big East play, with seven of those losses to ranked teams. USF (9-22, 3-15) played Villanova close two months ago, trailing by just three points with 10 minutes to play in what ultimately finished as an 83-71 loss.
"We're playing a Villanova team that's awfully good, but probably not playing maybe the same as when they were seventh in the country," Heath said. "We have an opportunity to pull something off. You get a little momentum going, you can make a run. That's what this is all about."
Heath said he's continuing to try things with an eye toward leaving more in the tank for those closing minutes where USF has faltered on one or both ends of the court. More substitution and more zone defense might allow his players more energy for when they'll need it most. The Bulls built a reputation in Heath's first three seasons for having a solid upset or two each year, but that's been missing -- in USF's last 22 conference games, the Bulls are 4-0 against last-place DePaul and 2-16 against the rest of the league.
A win this week would have more significance on next season than this one -- the team could return nearly intact, with only one senior in center Jarrid Famous. Heath confirmed Monday that he has had a conversation with junior forward Augustus Gilchrist about his submitting his name as an underclassman for NBA Draft consideration, something he can later retract if the prognosis from pro scouts isn't strong enough.
For now, Heath remains optimistic about his team's future, with a new multicourt practice facility being constructed on the south side of the Sun Dome, and $35-million in proposed offseason renovations to the arena itself awaiting state approval later this month. Two years ago, the Bulls finished the season at 9-22, the same record Heath's team takes into tonight's game, and a year later, the Bulls won 20 games and finished 9-9 in the Big East.
It would take considerable improvement to repeat that turnaround in 2011-12, but Heath said the momentum for such a push starts tonight, in taking an admittedly long season and fighting to make it just a little longer.
"You can see the possibilities and the future success that these new facilities will provide for our team," Heath said. "The Sun Dome renovations will be huge. Just like baseball already has seen, fans like to go to nice venues. The possibility of drawing more fans, with so many guys coming back and our team being so much better, that's what really excites me about our future."