TAMPA — Soon, the wise men will gather, and a tournament will begin to take form. Soon, these men will bring their charts and their rankings and their tape measures, and they will debate RPI and S.O.S. and signature wins and disappointing losses and teams that should be in and teams that should be out.
After they have been at it for a while, someone will say the strangest words ever uttered by a member of the NCAA selection committee.
"So," he will say, "what about USF?"
And, equally amazing, the room will not break out in spontaneous laughter.
USF in the NCAAs.
Who would have believed it?
This is no longer a dream for the Bulls, and this is no longer a joke for college basketball. After all of the years of irrelevance, after all of the finishes near the bottom of the Big East, after all of the games there was no longer a reason to watch, the Bulls matter again.
The finest season in USF basketball history added another chapter Wednesday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. This time, USF grunted and sweated its way to a 65-51 victory over Villanova. To be honest, that isn't the big deal it used to be, but for USF, it was another win in a conference that once looked a lot like a slaughterhouse to the Bulls.
This was the ninth win of the year by USF in the Big East, which is as many as the Bulls have ever had in a season. If nine doesn't sound like a lot to you, consider this: It took four seasons before USF won its first nine games in league play. There were seasons when USF wasn't even good enough to qualify for its own conference tournament.
Look who's dreaming now. The Bulls, who finished 3-15 in conference play last year. The Bulls, who only won 10 games total last year. The Bulls, who had lost 46 of their 52 conference road games in their history before this year. The Bulls, who last made the NCAA Tournament 20 seasons ago, back when they were in something called the Metro Conference.
Yeah, those guys.
"We know we still have work to do," USF coach Stan Heath said, "but yes, this is an NCAA-caliber team. I don't know what the magic number is. I just know we need to keep winning."
With five games to go, this has become one of the incredible stories in college basketball. This was the team that was over its head in the Big East, remember? This was the team that never had a chance. That you can talk about this team in the NCAAs is a staggering achievement itself.
Now, the Bulls are tied for fourth place in the Big East — a league that usually has 8-9 invitations — and these kids can see the prize. They need three victories, and maybe one more in the tournament, to get in. It would help if one of those was a signature win over Syracuse, maybe Louisville. Still, it isn't out of bounds to suggest this team in the NCAAs. To most of us, that's an achievement in itself.
Heath? Not so much. To be honest, Heath still thinks the Bulls team of two years ago (that made the NIT) deserved to go to the NCAAs. That was enough to make this team buy in. The USF players, too, believe they belong. More and more, others believe it, too.
"I just love the way they play," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I think they are definitely an NCAA-caliber team. If you're an NCAA-caliber team coming out of our conference, you're going to be successful in the NCAA Tournament. I think this team has a chance to do some damage."
Let's face it. The Bulls won't shoot their way in, and they won't get dragged in by a singular dose of greatness. They are not particularly smooth and they are not remotely pretty. But the Bulls play defense as if they had left their wallets under the basket. No one gets anything easy. When the other team has the ball, they are goaltenders and linebackers, and it is the reason this team has given itself a chance.
Take Wednesday's game. The first half was so ugly that it seemed that any moment, someone was going to take away the backboards and erect peach baskets. USF scored only 20 points, and every one of them came with the strain of a dolphin trying to give birth to a whale. For a while, it was easy to wonder if all of this NCAA Tournament talk left the Bulls a little tight.
Guess what? It didn't matter. Villanova only scored 20, too. It shot only 28.6 percent from the floor. And in the second half, when USF finally found a little offense, Villanova still shot only 32 percent.
More than anything else, that's the message Heath has gotten across to this USF team. It doesn't matter how you beat someone. It's whom you beat. And how many times you win.
Here on the road to relevance, that's an important lesson. Turns out, success isn't too much to ask from the Bulls, and even the NCAA Tournament is not out of reach. That's the best part of this team.
Pay attention, and it will make you believe.
And whoever expected that of USF basketball?
A Big East best
USF matched a school record Wednesday with its ninth Big East win. Its conference records since joining the 16-team league: