Bulls savor one that didn't get away
That's where I have to start. Great, great basketball game Saturday night, and a huge win for USF, now in the thick of the battle for the last few spots in the Big East tournament. Just to go old-school football-style, I'll number my thoughts, just to offer some semblance of the quick-hit style these blogs are really supposed to be ...
10. I think Robert McCullum has shed a lot of critics in the last six days. Gem of a game against Marquette -- and this week's Sports Illustrated, by the way, asking who this year's Florida might be, points to those Golden Eagles, who nearly lost in the Sun Dome last weekend. After the Marquette game, McCullum said he liked his team's matchups better against Notre Dame than against DePaul, who he'll face twice in the next month. USF lost by 24 at Notre Dame, but outplayed the Irish on Saturday in a lot of ways. After going 0-15 to start Big East play, the Bulls are 4-6 since. I think McCullum appreciated the turnout Saturday as well -- a great atmosphere throughout the game, what you'd associate with Big East basketball.
9. My Jawdropping Stat of the Night? Bench points: USF 15, Notre Dame 3. The Bulls' bench has been nonexistent -- two points in the loss at Notre Dame. They came up huge Saturday, especially Melvyn Richardson, who played 15 first-half minutes after Kentrell Gransberry picked up two quick fouls. Richardson didn't do much -- two assists, three boards, one missed shot. If you think of basketball in hockey terms, he had a great plus-minus. To come into the game at a 5-5 tie and leave USF with a five-point halftime lead, he filled in respectably. I thought Amu Saaka showed great confidence and hit four big free throws in the final minute, along with fellow freshman Solomon Bozeman. With those two and Chris Howard, a lot of big plays from freshmen in Saturday's win.
8. Was impressed with how much McCullum went to his bench early, perhaps knowing his starters might need a little extra down the stretch. At one point in the first half, the Bulls were playing four bench players -- Bozeman, Verdejo, Saaka and Richardson -- during a key stretch. Gransberry's foul trouble was a problem, but it also left him rested for the second half. I don't have a play-by-play, but I'd wager he had five rebounds in the final four minutes, with a level of energy his opponents didn't have.
7. If there's one stat I think correlates to USF's recent success, it's turnovers. The Bulls had four in the first half -- against a ranked team -- and after a rough start to the second half, they had just one in the final 12 minutes. Again, give some love to the bench, which totaled three turnovers in 47 minutes of relief. USF plays defense well enough that if the Bulls can limit themselves to 12 turnovers as they did Saturday, they'll win a lot of games.
6. Could basketball help USF football? Certainly didn't hurt things Saturday. Not only is this weekend the last one for official recruiting visits (signing day is Thursday), but Saturday was also USF's "junior day," where local juniors are invited to check out a basketball game, just an introduction toward next year's recruiting efforts. Looked like a huge turnout -- I know Boca Ciega, for instance, was scheduled to have 13 juniors in attendance, including quarterback Orhian Johnson. Sunday should be a busy day, with a last smattering of commitments coming in from the final weekend of visits. It's telling that USF is in a position where they're offering greyshirts -- deferred enrollment until January for kids not quite good enough to make this year's class of 25. Speaks well of the commitments the Bulls already have tucked away from a strong December ... And just to drop in a little basketball recruiting, among those in attendance at the Marquette game was Ejike Hart, the power forward from Hillsborough Community College who was close to signing with the Bulls in the fall signing period. Hart, you'll remember, lost his teammate and close friend, Kenie Freeman, who collapsed and died during a team practice two months ago. USF remains a strong leader for Hart, but he won't likely decide until April.
5. One thing to remember, as USF is bunched in a four-team tie for 11th place with a 3-6 league record: the Bulls have already played the tough part of their season. They won't likely face another ranked team, and the league record of the nine opponents they've faced is 45-37; the record of the teams they still have to play is 26-35. Only one remaining game is against a team with a winning conference record, and that's at home against Syracuse (5-4). USF has only one game remaining against a team in the top six in the current league standings; Seton Hall, by comparison, has three. So it seems reasonable that if USF can split two key road games, at St. John's this week and later at Seton Hall; and can split its two games with DePaul, a reasonable expectation, that the Bulls will have five wins and should be within a tiebreaker of making it to Madison Square Garden. Win six, and it'd take a wild anomaly to miss the cut for New York.
4. I think McHugh Mattis' last basket was his most impressive of the night. He'd score his previous two buckets on putbacks, but Mattis came from the right side, put one off the glass that missed, and then he somehow got himself on the other side of the rim to put back his own miss. It's the basketball equivalent of throwing a baseball 30 feet and catching it yourself: really shouldn't be possible. His previous basket, too, was confounding: if I didn't know better, I'd say Mattis somehow timed his leap to anticipate a USF missed shot bouncing TWICE on the rim; the Notre Dame player had timed his jump for a single bounce and missed the loose ball. The more I saw Mattis play Saturday, the more I think his comparable absence at the start of the Big East season was a big reason why the Bulls played as poorly as they did in their first three league games.
3. Not sure I have 10 things, but give credit to senior Melvin Buckley for adjusting his role to help the Bulls. The guy has enough range to be a natural small forward, but he's excelled at rebounding lately, with another eight boards in Saturday's win. McCullum is constantly preaching the importance of setting the tone coming out of halftime, and Buckley was at his best there, hitting a three, then a fadeaway for the first five points of the second half, giving USF a 10-point cushion.
2. Is there a more aptly named player than ND's Colin Falls? Everything he was throwing up was going in -- four 3s during a killer 14-3 run that put Notre Dame up 49-46 with about seven minutes to play. Falls finished with 26 points -- a career high -- and took three more 3-pointers himself than USF did as a team. Good as he was, the Irish missed 19 3-pointers, which is a lot of long rebounds that athletic leapers like Mattis and Gransberry hauled in pretty consistently. Second-half rebounding? USF gets the edge, 28-20, and that went a long way toward keeping that lead.
1. I think if USF can get a win at St. John's this week -- and the Red Storm have one less day of rest, since they face Cincy on Sunday -- you'll see more national press on the Bulls and McCullum. To go from 1-15, to be picked last, and to be 4-6 in a tough conference, it's an impressive turnaround. You could argue that USF will still be an underdog in all of its remaining seven games: the Bulls' RPI is up to 151, according to fast-updating realtimerpi.com, with St. John's at 144 entering the Cincy game. But none of their remaining opponents has an RPI higher than 50, and Notre Dame's was 44, so just as they won't be favored much, it's hard to count them out of many of these remaining games, either. Just to have the conference tournament in play for this last month of the season will be big for McCullum, in recruiting, in his job future, in keeping fans interested in USF basketball.