TAMPA — College basketball gives its teams nothing but wins or losses, so it's fitting that USF will leave Madison Square Garden this week with one of two things: a very unlikely Big East championship or a school record for losses in a season.
It has been a long year for Stan Heath and his 9-22 Bulls, who have consistently played close to the league's best teams for about 30 minutes only to fade late. Tonight gives the Bulls another opportunity for the upset that has escaped them all season, with an opening-round showdown with 10th-seeded Villanova.
"It's been difficult, because we haven't figured out a way to play for 40 minutes, to turn things up down the stretch, to get the stops and scores you need to win those games," Heath said by phone Monday. "We know now that you win, you keep playing. That's the exciting part about this tournament."
The Wildcats (21-10) are that rare team that could have a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament than in the conference. Villanova opened the year 16-1 but has since gone 5-9 in Big East play, with seven of those losses to ranked teams. USF (9-22, 3-15) played Villanova close two months ago, trailing by three points with 10 minutes to play in what finished as an 83-71 loss.
"We're playing a Villanova team that's awfully good, but probably not playing maybe the same as when they were seventh in the country," Heath said. "We have an opportunity to pull something off. You get a little momentum going, you can make a run. That's what this is all about."
Heath said he's continuing to try things with an eye toward leaving more in the tank for those closing minutes. More substitution and more zone defense might allow his players more energy for when they'll need it most.
The Bulls built a reputation in Heath's first three seasons for having a solid upset or two each year, but that has been missing: In USF's past 22 conference games, the Bulls are 4-0 against last-place DePaul and 2-16 against the rest of the league.
A win this week would have more significance for next season than this one; the team could return nearly intact, with only one senior in center Jarrid Famous. Heath confirmed Monday that he has had a conversation with junior forward Augustus Gilchrist about submitting his name as an underclassman for NBA draft consideration, which he can retract if the projection from pro scouts isn't strong enough.
For now, Heath remains optimistic about his team's future, with a multicourt practice facility being constructed on the south side of the Sun Dome and $35 million in proposed offseason renovations to the arena itself awaiting state approval. Two years ago, the Bulls finished 9-22, the same record Heath's team takes into tonight's game; a year later the Bulls won 20 games and finished 9-9 in the Big East.
It would take considerable improvement to repeat that turnaround, but Heath said the momentum for such a push starts tonight, in taking a long season and fighting to make it just a little longer.
"You can see the possibilities and the future success that these new facilities will provide for our team," Heath said. "The Sun Dome renovations will be huge. Just like baseball already has seen, fans like to go to nice venues. The possibility of drawing more fans, with so many guys coming back and our team being so much better, that's what really excites me about our future."
|First round||Second round||Quarterfinals||Semifinal||Championship||Semifinal||Quarterfinals||Second round||First round|
|No. 9 UConn||No. 1 Pitt||No. 2 Notre Dame||No. 10 Villanova|
|Noon, ESPN||Noon, ESPN||7, ESPN||7, ESPNU|
|No. 16 DePaul||Noon, ESPN||7, ESPN||No. 15 USF|
|No. 8 Georgetown||7, ESPN||9, ESPN||9, ESPN||No. 7 Cincinnati|
|No. 12 Seton Hall||No. 4 Syracuse||No. 3 Louisville||No. 11 Marquette|
|2, ESPN2||2, ESPN||9, ESPN||9, ESPNU|
|No. 13 Rutgers||2, ESPN||9, ESPN||No. 14 Providence|
|No. 5 St. John's||No. 6 W. Virginia|