Bulls' surprising success built on defense
TAMPA -- Asked if there was a moment when Stan Heath realized he might have a special taeam at USF this season, he recalled a time in November when he looked at his stats and saw the Bulls were giving up the least points in the Big East.
"To me, that was a big deal. I told our team that, and it was a bigger deal for them," Heath said Thursday, preparing for Saturday's home finale against West Virginia. "And that was a light bulb for me. 'These guys really like that.' They don't mind that being their identity and who they are."
Today, as USF (19-11, 12-5 in Big East) looks to solidify its first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years, Heath's team can do better than the best defense in the Big East. In allowing 57.4 points per game, USF is on course to have the best defense in Big East history, and the best ever for a Bulls team as well.
"It all comes down to defense," junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "It's something we pride ourselves a great deal on. To be the No. 1 scoring defense in the Big East, that means a lot. We play in a very competitive league. We hang our hats on defense, and we're glad to see it paying off for us and helping us get some major wins here."
Defense has been central in USF's last seven games, during which the Bulls have held all seven opponents to 56 points or less and at least 19 points under their season average. Cincinnati mustered 45 points against the Bulls -- eight under its previous low for the season -- and Louisville matched its season low with 51 in a home loss to USF on Wednesday.
"That's something we should really be proud of," senior forward Roan Anderson said. "I don't want people to overlook that. Coach Heath has done a great job of trying to get the guys to buy in to defense."
Barring a late letdown, USF will trump the Big East's all-time low for points allowed -- Georgetown gave up 57.8 per game in 2006-07. The Bulls will easily reset the school marks for points allowed (60.1, in 1985-86), and they're holding opponents to 39.2 percent shooting, better than the record of 39.9, set in 2002-03.
A Bulls win, combined with a loss by Georgetown or Notre Dame, would give USF a top-four seed and double-bye to the quarterfinals of next week's Big East tournament, something unfathomable even a month ago, given USF's history in the league. The Bulls will be seeded no lower than sixth.
"Stan doesn't get enough credit for the job he's done in a really tough situation, rebuilding this program," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said after Sunday's game. "He's one of the best defensive coaches around."
It's fitting, then, that USF's final opponent, West Virginia, has done a number on the Bulls defensively, holding USF to 59 points or less in all seven meetings (all Mountaineers wins) since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005. While many pundits have said USF punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament with a win Wednesday at No. 19 Louisville, Heath and his players are focused on continuing to build their resume.
Saturday is Senior Day for three key members of the Bulls -- forwards Ron Anderson and Augustus Gilchrist and guard Hugh Robertson -- and the end of their careers will be a different finish than a year ago, when Anderson can remember senior Jarrid Famous going out uneventfully after a disappointing 10-23 season. Every win gives them a better chance of going out the way they want to.
"We were standing on the loading dock, and he and Coach just shook hands. That was it. No NIT. No (tournament)," Anderson said. "I thought 'Are we just done?' Now, we're going to keep on going until we can't go anymore."