Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

Amazingly, USF Bulls a step away from Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament

NASHVILLE — Say it slowly, and perhaps the sound of it will make more sense. Roll it over your tongue as you ponder the sheer unlikelihood of it all. Let the words sink in until they seem to make sense.

USF is one step from the Sweet 16.

Really.

Even now, even after all they have won and all they have convinced, the words sound strange, like different pieces of unrelated sentences. Sweet 16? Yeah, you've heard of that. The Bulls? Yeah, you've heard of them. But who would ever think such a platform and such a program would ever fit together?

From here, the Bulls are one win from the memorable, two wins from the historical and three from being immortal.

That's how close USF is to being one of those amazing NCAA Tournament teams that make a name for themselves along the way, a George Mason, a VCU, a Butler. Whenever fans talk about the NCAA Tournament, these are the unlikely successes they always bring up.

When you think about who they have been, and how lost they were, who is more unlikely than the Bulls?

"It's an amazing story," college analyst Dick Vitale said on Saturday. "They have a great opportunity. Ohio is a very, very good team, but it's certainly on USF's level. It's not Kentucky or Syracuse. I think they have a tremendous chance. And for USF, getting to the Sweet 16 in their situation is really making noise.

"Those 16 teams are going to get so much PR that you want to be a part of it. It all started with 68 teams, and 52 of those have hung up their uniforms."

If you measure how far they have come, the Bulls are probably already one of the best stories imaginable. The Sweet 16? In six of the last eight seasons, the Bulls have barely made the top 14 of their own conference.

If you measure how far they must go to be thought of as having one of the great Cinderella runs in tournament history, there is more to do. Most of the memorable runs seem to finish in the Final Four — or, at least, the Elite Eight. The Bulls don't have to match Butler's back-to-back national championship game appearances. They may not have to match VCU's First Four to Final Four. But if they are going to be remembered nationally, they have a little more work to do.

"We need to win this game," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "And then we'll talk."

In Tampa Bay, where people have seen the depths of the USF program for the past two decades, this run is already impressive. The Bulls have reached the tournament, and they won their first game, and they won their second.

Considering that this team was 7-7 at one point this season, considering that it doesn't have a great player (such as Davidson's Stephen Curry in '08 or Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble in '90) to carry it, USF has already overreached its expectations. It has left a footprint, as Heath says.

"Unless they follow basketball closely, I don't think a lot of people even realize USF is in the Big East," Vitale said. "If you ask my wife or the average person out there, I don't think people know where they're from. It's fantastic for the area.

"I've said it several times. I thought this was the most difficult coaching job in America. One of them, anyway. What Stan Heath has done is unique. In Vitalese, it's "Awesome, baby.' "

The moving question in this conversation is this: How, exactly, does a team get to become a Cinderella? Well, by winning. But some low-seeded teams have made fairly deep runs without catching America's attention.

Here are a couple of rules: One, it seems to help if a team is from a tiny conference. For some reason, teams from the power conferences don't seem to be called Cinderella. Still, when you consider how far from consideration USF has been, it's easy to argue that the team would have been better off in a smaller league.

Two, you have to knock off a brand name along the way. USF hasn't done that yet. Temple has played in a lot of NCAA games over the years, but the Owls were only a fifth seed this year. USF needs bigger victims. For the record, if they beat Ohio, they would likely play North Carolina next.

Three, whoever you are, you better play defense. That's the common trait of all of the unlikelies.

"You've got to defend," Vitale said. "How do you think USF was able to win (over Temple) when they were three of 27 in the first half? Their defense kept them in the game. The key is to get to the last three minutes with a chance to win. Then the pressure gets to the team with the big names. Suddenly, the five-star player starts playing like a three, and the three-star player plays like a five."

One more win, maybe two, and you can argue that USF might be on the verge of one of the top 10 unexpected runs the tournament has seen.

For instance, a lot of people talk about the 1986 LSU team, which was seeded 11th and finished in the Final Four. Ah, but that LSU team was 14-0 at one point that season. Besides, the Tigers had been to five of the previous seven tournaments. That's not the same journey.

Others might talk about Heath's old Kent State team (2002) that went from a 10th seed to the Elite Eight. But Kent State had made the tournament the previous year. Not the same.

Even George Mason, which beat Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn on its way, was in its third NCAAs in eight years. Not the same.

Another win, maybe three, and the debate will begin. Who is a bigger miracle than the Bulls? Who has come further? Who was more impressive?

This is how close they are. You can see the Sweet 16 from here. Maybe even the Elite Eight.

Win this, and forever, they will be the incredi-Bulls.

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Published: 02/24/18