TAMPA — It has been a hard-fought nonconference season for USF, and as it opens Big East play today with a huge home game against No. 7 Syracuse, the Bulls have gotten to their 9-3 record with clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch.
"Thank goodness for the Muma Center," coach Stan Heath said of his team's year-old practice facility after Wednesday's win at Central Florida, which saw the Bulls go 8-for-8 at the line in the final minute to pull away for a nine-point win. "We practice free throws. We know with the team we have, we're going to have close games, and when we have close games, a lot of times they're going to be decided by free throws."
The past three games have fit that description. The Bulls went 5-for-5 at the line in the final two overtimes of a triple-overtime win against Bowling Green, and they pulled away to beat George Mason by making 10 of 10 free throws in the final two minutes. In USF's most high-profile nonconference win, it went 9-of-11 in the final four minutes to pull one out against Georgia in the SEC-Big East Challenge.
"Fortunately, I have kids who are pretty tough-minded," Heath said of the late-game calm at the line. "They prepare themselves well. I can honestly say if it doesn't go in, it's not because of effort, not because the kids aren't focused. They've been very, very good in that situation."
Late free throws have been there for USF, even when shots from the field haven't been falling. In Wednesday's win at UCF, USF hit only one field goal in the final 11:53, a huge 3-pointer by Toarlyn Fitzpatrick with a one-point lead and just more than a minute to play.
"We had to keep our composure, not really lose our heads," Fitzpatrick said of his team's ability to close out tight games. "We stuck with it, grinded it out and came up with the win in the end."
Before the Muma Center, USF players didn't have easy access to baskets to practice free throws on their own, competing for time on the Sun Dome courts when they were available or in the campus rec center. By no coincidence, free-throw shooting was not USF's strong suit in its first years in the Big East; as recently as 2008, the Bulls shot less than 60 percent. The team percentage was up to 70.5 percent last season, and it's down slightly at 69.4 percent this season.
It's one area where USF has an advantage on Syracuse: The Bulls rank sixth in the Big East in free-throw percentage, while Syracuse is 13th out of 15 teams. That only helps if the Bulls are able to get to the line. In last season's 56-48 loss at Syracuse, USF went 4-for-4 while the Orange went 15-of-23 on its homecourt.
USF's record entering Big East play is much better than the 7-6 mark the Bulls had a year ago before going 12-6 in the conference to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years. With a tougher schedule, USF will be hard-pressed to match that, but a 10-8 record, combined with a solid showing in the conference tournament, might be enough for the Bulls to return to NCAAs. That won't be easy.
USF's nonconference season only scratched the surface of the level of competition the Bulls will face in the Big East. USF is 0-2 against teams in the RPI top 80, with losses to Oklahoma State and Western Michigan, and 13 of their remaining 18 games will be against top-80 opponents; Syracuse is the first of six home games against top-50 teams.
"We just have to have confidence in each other," said junior forward Victor Rudd, who has emerged as the team's best rebounder and its most explosive scorer. "We still have to get better at everything, but it helps us going to play Syracuse, gives us confidence to go out there and know we can compete."