DAYTON, Ohio — Stan Heath hears the critics who say USF's brand of defense-first basketball is downright ugly, and from where he's sitting, preparing for the Bulls' first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years, he appreciates the compliment.
"Ugly is in the eye of the beholder," Heath said after a Big East tournament game last week. "I love the way we play. … I don't apologize at all for how hard my guys defend. I'm proud of it. I think there's probably 90 percent of the coaches that would love to do the same thing. So there's no apologies."
The Bulls (20-13) play tonight in the first round against fellow No. 12 seed California, whose coach, Mike Montgomery, can appreciate USF's devotion to defense and the success that has come with it.
"I think it's smart," Montgomery said Tuesday. "You can win with defense. … Stan figured, 'Look, let's go defend first, let's use our size, our strength, maybe our length, and try and defend and give ourselves the best chance to win.' And that's obviously worked for him."
Louisville's Rick Pitino, whose team lost at home to the Bulls three weeks ago, compared facing USF to a root canal. The comparison brings smiles of validation to Bulls players, who relish the idea of the discomfort their defense creates without anesthesia.
"That's a Hall of Fame coach giving us a great compliment," senior center Ron Anderson said. "He's been doing this for a very long time, and that's as good a compliment as our team has received all year. … It's an honor to hear him say that."
USF is allowing 56.9 points per game, a Big East and school-record low. Heath didn't go into the season expecting defense to be such a big part of his team's identity, but it has gone hand in hand with the team's unexpected rise after being picked to finish 14th in the league by coaches in the preseason. So root canals are the plan now, every game.
"That's what we want to do: We want to disrupt you. We want to smell your breath," Heath said. "We want to get underneath your skin. We want to make life miserable for you."
The defense is stifling enough to impress Cal's Jorge Gutierrez, who was the Pac-12's defensive player of the year but said his team hasn't faced a team as defense-oriented as it does tonight.
"It's going to be a real challenge on the physical side of the game," Gutierrez said.
USF hasn't scored more than 65 in a game since January, but they closed out with seven wins playing that way. It isn't great TV, but the Bulls aren't going for ratings, so much as simple wins and the chance at another root canal.
"We're going to continue doing what we're doing, continue playing Bulls basketball and playing defense," Anderson said. "No matter how sloppy it is or unflashy it might be, we're still going to stick with our foundation and hope for the best."