TAMPA — Stan Heath was a few minutes late to a news conference Monday, but he had the best excuse a USF basketball coach has had in eight years: preparing for a postseason game.
After learning Sunday night that his Bulls would play host to N.C. State at 8 tonight in the first round of the NIT, Heath stayed up until 2:30 a.m. studying the Wolfpack, then was up at 8 Monday morning to resume game preparation. He felt like a student cramming for a fast-approaching exam, needing to gather a lot of knowledge in a far-too-short amount of time.
"That's what it's like," Heath said before Monday's practice. "You're trying to hunt down as much information as you can. The same thing will be true for our players. We have to jam a whole bunch of information down their throats in the next three or four hours."
Postseason basketball is something USF (20-12) has hungered for since the 2002 NIT, and the Bulls haven't had a postseason home game in 15 years, since beating Coppin State in the second round of the 1995 NIT.
"It's a step up for this program. Everyone's excited around here," senior guard Chris Howard said. "Our goal was to get to the NCAAs, but just postseason play, a 20-win season, my name's in the history books a lot this year. It's definitely been great."
Monday brought a crash course in the Wolfpack, which is 19-15 but has a few big wins, including a home upset of Duke and a win at Marquette. Heath is impressed with power forward Tracy Smith, a "terrific" 6-foot-9, 247-pound junior from Detroit who averages 16.9 points and 7.5 rebounds.
The biggest concern for Heath, however, is getting his players to shoot better, after USF went 1-for-19 on 3-pointers in two games in the Big East tournament.
"We've never been lights-out shooting, but a couple games, we hit a couple shots, so that opened up the lanes. We have to make shots," said leading scorer Dominique Jones, who is 0-for-11 on 3-pointers in the past three games. "We're going to have some tough ball games, but we have to knock down open shots to open up the lane for our drives."
Two more wins would give the Bulls 22, matching the school record, and Heath said his team is excited by the opportunity. This is also a battle between two of the nation's premier basketball conferences, and as one of 13 Big East schools in the postseason, USF is proud to represent its league against a top rival.
"Being from the Big East, you walk around with something on your shoulder, like, 'Okay, I play in the Big East. I play in the best basketball conference. I play in the most physical conference.' " Jones said. "There's something about the Big East that you walk around with your head high, no matter what team you are."
Heath said he's used to looking at the banners on one side of the Sun Dome, which show the 16 schools in the Big East, a reminder of how tough a league the Bulls play in. But he has noticed the other banners, which show nine previous postseasons, including seven NIT trips, and his players are motivated to make the most of the next banner above their homecourt.
"This is something to be excited about. You guys, 2010, have a chance to put a banner up there," Heath said. "We'd love for it to say more than just 'appearance.' … We're going to try to take it one game at a time, try to win a championship."