Bulls hope to keep streak alive at Notre Dame
TAMPA -- In just two weeks, in only four games, USF and guard Dominique Jones have made the nation's college basketball fans stop what they're doing and watch something they might not have cared about -- or had much reason to care about -- before two weeks ago.
With four wins -- two against ranked teams -- Jones and the Bulls have put themselves on the map, and a win Sunday at Notre Dame could result in the school's first-ever appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. There is legitimate talk of USF making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years. But if you ask Jones about the crazy roll he's on, averaging 35 points per game in these four wins, and he'll tell you the Bulls' recent tear is nothing out of the ordinary.
"I'm not on a roll," Jones insisted Friday, right before a quick interview with Sports Illustrated. "I just feel like I feel a lot more comfortable on the court. I feel I've got Coach (Stan) Heath's trust. I feel like he trusts me 100 percent. Earlier in the season, I felt like it was only 80 or 90. I feel like I can shoot a bad shot and him not have a problem with it, and that means a lot."
There have not been many bad shots to have problems with, not from Jones or his teammates, not since the Bulls trailed at Providence by nine points with 40 seconds left on Jan. 22. The Bulls rallied to win in overtime, then needed overtime to beat Seton Hall, and then things really started to happen: a home win against No. 17 Pittsburgh, then Wednesday's win at No. 7 Georgetown.
Can the streak continue Sunday? The Bulls' focus in trying to sustain their success is rivaled only by their confidence.
"You can call it whatever you want to, but I don't see a team on the schedule that we can't beat," Jones said. "I know that teams are not going to give us wins. We have to come to practice, and we have to work hard. We have to go out there and take wins, take respect, take it all. ... We are making something out of this season. It feels good."
Jones has a point -- of USF's eight remaining opponents, only one (Villanova) entered the weekend with a winning record in Big East play. What's more, the Bulls might now regain the services of sophomore forward Gus Gilchrist, who hasn't played since he severely sprained his ankle in December. Gilchrist was USF's leading scorer before his injury, so two weeks ago, his return was a popular starting point for fans' hopes. Now, his addition must be weighed against any potential disruption to the team's winning chemistry.
"That is going to fall on me and (Jones) to make sure that we fit him in," said point guard Chris Howard, who has totaled three turnovers in 157 minutes played in the four wins. "Me being a point guard, make sure he gets touches and gets comfortable back into the system. At the same time, we have to understand that the things that we have been doing have been working. We just have to keep continuing to do that."
The mere fact that the Bulls (15-7, 5-5 in Big East) can be confident on the road is incredible in itself. USF won three conference road games in its first four seasons; now the Bulls have won two straight. After today at Notre Dame and Saturday at Marquette, USF can look forward to a Feb. 16 home game against Cincinnati -- and the excitement that comes with four home dates in the final six games.
No disrespect to the Lightning, but it's promising for local sports fans about life after football season.
"We never want January, February and March to be an off time in Tampa," Heath said. "This is something we have always wanted to do. Our players and coaches have always wanted to bring exciting basketball to Tampa, and we believe we are moving in that direction. We're hopeful when we come back home and play home games here, that the Sun Dome will rock and fans will come out and see us. We are playing terrific basketball, and the more excitement and the more people that come see us, the better our team will perform."
It is difficult to imagine the Bulls playing better than they have in the last two weeks, but that is Heath's challenge, one that his team has been able to do with each game in their current streak.
"Our team is really making a lot of progress," he said. "We are believing in ourselves and were working extremely hard in practice, so we can't lose our focus and we can't lose our edge. We still have to be the hunting team and not the team that is sitting back and being lazy. I do believe our guys have the right mindset and they're excited about what has happened, but we have to make sure we remember that three weeks ago we were 0-4 and things can change in a hurry if we don't continue to make progress and get better."