Bulls hoping to stick around on NCAA bubble
TAMPA -- Stan Heath is careful not to allow his focus -- or his team's -- to shift beyond its next opponent and the next must-win game, but with a home victory Wednesday night against Villanova, the Bulls will have a rightful place in conversation for the NCAA Tournament bubble.
How many wins does USF (15-10, 8-4 in Big East) need to make the NCAAs? The consensus is that a 4-2 finish by the Bulls entering the Big East tournament -- that's wins against Villanova and at Pittsburgh, then at home against Cincinnati and West Virginia, allowing for losses at Syracuse and Louisville -- would give the Bulls a worthy resume if they can win at least one game in Manhattan.
That would put the Bulls at 20-12, with a 12-6 conference mark. In the Big East's history, only five teams have won 20 and missed the NCAA cut, and that's five out of 152, though USF's 2010 team is one of those five. Fall short of that and finish even 11-7 in the league and USF will know that only five Big East teams (and just one since 2003) have finished four games over .500 in conference and missed the NCAAs. Again, that's five out of 124. And no team has finished six games over in the Big East (like 12-6) and been snubbed by the NCAA.
Heath likes the bubble talk, even if it currently has USF as a longshot on the outside, knowing that it adds importance and urgency to each game for his players.
"I think it's good to talk about. It creates interest. I think it keeps the players motivated, shooting for things," Heath said Monday in preparation for tonight's game against Villanova. "We want to be in that conversation. We know we have a lot of work to get there, but we want to be in that conversation."
This year's Bulls are very much in unfamiliar territory -- win tonight and USF will be five games over .500 in conference play for only the third time in its history. The Bulls got there twice in 1990 (at 7-2 and 9-4 in the Sun Belt) on the way to their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, and twice again in 2001 (at 6-1 and 9-4 in Conference USA) before losing four of their last five to miss the postseason entirely.
That Heath's team is finding this success in the Big East is all the more incredible. Consider that in USF's first six seasons in the Big East, they won so much as two consecutive Big East games in only two stretches, both in the 2009-10 season. This year's team has already done that three times, including the current two-game streak. After going a dismal 11-57 in their first four years in the Big East, the Bulls are now a competitive 20-28 in the last three seasons.
The bubble is a slippery place to be, so USF cannot afford a letdown, wild as it seems to think of a Bulls loss to Villanova as a letdown. It's a much higher expectation than USF is used to playing with, but Heath likes that challenge.
"The players want that. They know they've put themselves in a position where, a couple months ago, nobody thought we'd be," he said. "Now they feel like now we're in a position where we have a chance, and go for it. What do we have to lose?"