One of the perks of the Big East's 18-game conference schedule is that as USF finds itself a surprising 6-3 at the halfway point, coach Stan Heath has ample golf metaphors at his disposal.
"We've got the back nine of this league, and it is a little bit harder than the front nine we've had," Heath said Thursday as his team prepared for what would have to be considered a par 5, facing No. 14 Georgetown on the road with an 11 o'clock start this morning. "We've done more than everyone expected us to do, but there's still a lot more that we need to do."
USF (13-9) will be challenged to match the 6-3 mark in the second half of the league season, if only because the competition will be tougher. USF's first nine league opponents are a combined 37-50 in conference play; the next nine are 42-46, including a difficult four-game final stretch: Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia. The Bulls know many are skeptical of their record.
"Right now, they're saying, 'Is it all a fluke?' " said junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who hit clutch shots in the second half of a home win Sunday against Providence. "They're wondering are they going to be able to keep it going with the tougher half of the schedule that we have. I think that's going to be a motivation for us to keep going well and prove some of those guys wrong."
The Bulls, for only the second time in their Big East history, find themselves as a potential postseason team, in position for the NIT, with a shot at the NCAA Tournament bubble if they could repeat that 6-3 mark over the next nine games. The players aren't aiming for anything less than that.
"They want it. I know our seniors want it. Everybody on the team would like to play in the postseason, would love to play in the NCAA Tournament," said Heath, referencing USF possibly making only its third NCAA appearance and first since the 1991-92 season. "It's too early, but every game is huge in order to get there. … In the back of my head, I would feel very comfortable if we duplicated what we just did in the first nine. That may be even more than we need to do, but I would feel very comfortable with that."
Heath said the conversation in the locker room isn't about season goals but rather the next opponent, though a win today would be a step in that direction. Two years ago, the Bulls went to Georgetown and beat the No. 7 Hoyas, still the highest ranked opponent they have ever beaten.
"Our resume right now, we have a good record, but we need something that can draw attention nationally, to let everybody know we're for real," Heath said. "That would be as big as any win we could get right now. If we want to be where we want to be, we have to beat some good teams. It's in front of us."
Heath said while it's one thing to have caught the attention of the national media with a solid start, the Bulls have to continue to win to stay in that conversation.
"We've put ourselves in position to maybe be a blip in the discussion. We need to do a lot more work. We need some major wins," he said. "We have to protect home and steal some games on the road. We can't look beyond anybody. The stretch we have in front of us is daunting."