Tough league? Ranks right up there for Bulls
TAMPA -- With an unprecedented nine teams ranked in the top 25 this week, this year's Big East may be the deepest, toughest conference in college basketball history, somehow deeper and tougher than last year's Big East, which put a record eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Few people are more aware of that than USF coach Stan Heath, who has the seemingly impossible challenge of trying to rise up from the bottom of the same league.
"It's daunting. If you get caught up looking ahead, you could worry yourself to death," said Heath, hoping to improve on a 3-15 league record his first season at USF. "I know we play Louisville, and I think we play DePaul, and then I really don't know. And I don't want to know."
That next game, for the record, is a trip to No. 1 Pittsburgh. Even for the Bulls players who have been through a season or two in the Big East, the night-in, night-out intensity can be a lot to handle.
"You feel like you're playing a ranked opponent every night," said guard Chris Howard, one of three current Bulls who were around the last time USF beat a ranked team, taking down No. 21 Notre Dame in March 2007.
The Bulls truly are playing a ranked team nearly every time out. After nearly upsetting then-No. 13 Syracuse on Friday, they have No. 24 Louisville in the Sun Dome on Wednesday night. Before joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls played back-to-back games against ranked opponents just four times in their first 34 seasons. This is the fourth time in four years, and it's only getting started.
USF has played five ranked teams in each of the last two seasons -- the only time the Bulls had played more was in 1991-92, when they played seven in reaching the NCAA Tournament.
This season? Based on the current rankings, the Bulls would play 11 ranked opponents, including top-ranked Pitt next week and No. 5 Connecticut and No. 9 Georgetown next month. In the entire month of January, USF's only games against unranked teams are two dates with DePaul.
The schedule makes it difficult to measure the progress of a team on the outside still looking in. USF is 8-75 all-time against ranked opponents, having never beaten a team ranked higher than No. 15. That's not to say the Bulls haven't come close -- of their last seven losses against ranked teams, all have been by 13 points or less, including three straight by seven or less.
"Getting better is the most important thing to me: Are we improving defensively? Are we improving our ballhandling, our team chemistry?" he said. "As long as I'm feeling we're heading in that direction, I can kind of live with things. I'm seeing that. I definitely think we're a better team even than when we played in Puerto Rico (last month). Knowing I have young guys with bright futures is also a big key."
Louisville has been especially tough for the Bulls, handing them their most lopsided losses in each of the last two seasons. The three wins in the past two years have all been by at least 20 points, so USF has to stay confident despite the recent history.
"They play wild, and they try to intimidate you," sophomore guard Dominique Jones said. "We have to keep our composure, hit them first, play smart. (Last year), they came out and took it to us in the first half and controlled the game from there."
Heath is still waiting for his first win at USF against a ranked team -- Seth Greenberg (0-20) and three other USF coaches never got one with the Bulls. Heath's first could be tonight, but if it isn't, there are plenty of opportunities coming one right after the next.
"Everybody knew when I came here, that this wasn't going to be an easy task, where you just walk in and flip a switch and it's going to happen," Heath said. "It takes recruiting classes, it takes player development, it takes team building and those are all things we're working on."