Bulls hope for improbable upset at No. 7 'Nova
TAMPA -- As quickly as USF seemed to knock itself off the NCAA bubble with Saturday's home loss to St. John's, the Bulls can jump back into the mix with one upset -- however difficult -- on Wednesday night at No. 7 Villanova.
That upset seems a long shot, facing a team that made the Final Four last year and is 26-3 at home in the past two seasons. But USF coach Stan Heath is reminding his players that they've pulled off improbable road wins already this season, so nothing is truly out of the Bulls' reach.
"I looked back on the film from last year, and we played them wire to wire," said Heath, whose team trailed the Wildcats by two with 1:15 to play in a 70-61 home loss. "It was a game in the last three, four minutes, and we had a legitimate chance to pull off. They're a good, good team. We're going to prepare as hard as we can to try to steal a win. Hopefully, we can turn it into a Georgetown situation, where we come in as the underdog, we just come together and find a way to win."
Georgetown was just three weeks ago -- the Bulls knocked off the then-No. 7 Hoyas on the road, putting themselves squarely in the conversation for the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years. Since then, they've dropped three of four, such that now the Bulls are in a four-way tie for ninth place, one loss away from 13th in the Big East standings.
Heath said the team has confidence from its strong play at Georgetown -- and that was without forward Augustus Gilchrist, now back after missing two months with a sprained ankle.
"I think the Georgetown win helps us when we go on the road," Heath said. "It gives us a sense that when we're in a hostile environment, playing a really good team, in Georgetown's case a ranked team, we found a way to get the job done. It does give us something to fall back on, but we have to play for 40 minutes."
The Bulls (16-10, 6-8 in Big East) haven't played at the same level in the last four games -- even junior guard Dominique Jones, who had averaged 35.0 points per game during a wild four-game winning streak, has averaged just 17.3 points in four games since, shooting 32 percent from the field.The Big East logjam is the center of the NCAA bubble -- just as the Bulls have fallen, Connecticut has rallied and won three straight to move back into contention. Heath said the top of the Big East might not be as dominant as last year, but he's more aware of his conference's depth than ever before -- don't read much into any perceived advantage or disadvantage from the league standings.
"That's our league. You look at UConn. You can even say 'Yeah, boy, looks like South Florida should beat UConn,'" Heath said. "That team is ridiculously loaded. We can't kid ourselves and say 'Hey, you know what, USF's here (arm held high), they're here (arm low).' We're all in the same boat. It's who comes to play that game, offensively, defensively, who comes together as a team. Whoever does wins."
For USF, that means getting back to fundamentals, playing better defense, and not suffering from the lapses that have let recent games get away from the Bulls. Heath said his team needs to look inward if they want to think about having a relevance for discussion on a national level.
"More than the postseason, we're going to talk about ourselves, what we need to be doing to get ourselves back on track," he said. "That has to be our focus: fixing us."