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 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 last season, his first 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 game after DePaul, for the record, is Jan. 14 at No. 1 Pittsburgh. Even for Bulls 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 (5-8, 0-1) 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 tonight. 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 each of the past 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 current rankings, the Bulls would play 11 ranked opponents, including No. 5 Connecticut and No. 9 Georgetown next month. In 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 higher than No. 15. That's not to say the Bulls haven't come close — each of their past seven losses to ranked teams has been by 13 points or fewer, including three in a row by seven or fewer.
"Getting better is the most important thing to me: Are we improving defensively? Are we improving our ballhandling, our team chemistry?" Heath 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 each of the past two seasons. The three wins in the past two seasons have all been by at least 20 points, so USF has to stay confident despite 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. That could be tonight, but if not 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."