Today, as much as any day in the past four seasons, USF basketball should feel like it belongs in the Big East.
For three years, Madison Square Garden was a destination sought but never reached for the Bulls. Only the top 12 teams in the Big East made it to the conference tournament, so USF had always missed out on the league's signature week.
"I guess in some ways, you do feel a little more inclusive, as part of the league," coach Stan Heath said.
A new format has all 16 teams in Manhattan, and the Bulls will be a bit wide-eyed at their first trip to "The World's Most Famous Arena" for tonight's first-round game against Seton Hall. They come in as the 14th seed, with a 4-14 record in the league, and yet their goal is to act like they've been there before and to take another giant step by sticking around beyond that first day.
"Winning would be a huge step for us," said Heath, who has never coached a game at MSG. "We don't just want to show up there and get excited about that. We want to do something while we're there. … I want them to be confident. They'll have some nervousness. I don't want to say the word 'relaxed,' but I do feel like they don't need to feel a whole lot of pressure. … It will be unique."
The new format gives the league's top eight teams tonight off, with the top four getting a "double bye" and not playing until Thursday.
Knowing that, their fans might not be in town yet, leaving empty seats in what amounts to a play-in round. Online ticket site Stubhub.com had tickets for tonight's session going as cheap as $6, with more than 50 available for less than $10; the same seats Thursday night start at $75.
"I know it's the premier place in the world to play basketball. I know legends have walked through the courts, as well as the sidelines for coaches," Heath said. "I haven't given it that much thought, because once you get caught up in the moment of playing the game, you've got to pay attention to that. Kobe (Bryant) and all those guys get excited, so it must be something."
Heath said his players shouldn't be overwhelmed by the spectacle of the event, reminding them that the court will be the same even if everything around it isn't. "Let's measure the rims, let's measure the court," Heath said. "We're okay."
USF has taken a small step forward by winning four league games, one more than the previous two seasons. The Bulls stumbled Saturday, losing 45-42 at Rutgers, which came in with a 1-16 league record. USF faces a Seton Hall team that beat it 75-60 in Newark less than two weeks ago, forcing 18 turnovers while committing just six.
"We didn't handle the speed and quickness they have, especially at the guard spot," Heath said. "Turnovers led to our loss. We have to take better care of the basketball against them. We'll turn over some, but not the way we were doing where it ended up being layups and two-on-one fastbreaks. … They can score. We'll have to generate some points in that game."
Three USF players, including sophomore guard Dominique Jones, have been to MSG for the Big East's preseason media event, but playing there is a different experience.
"I've been in there, I've seen it on TV, but I've never played there," Jones said. "I'm real excited about it, trying not to get too excited. I've got to because I have to be calm out there on the court. … It's the same court. Everybody just has to look at it, be excited, be amazed, then get back to the main reason we're up there."