TAMPA — As quickly as USF seemed to knock itself off the NCAA bubble with Saturday's home loss to St. John's, the Bulls can jump back into the mix with an upset — however difficult — tonight at No. 7 Villanova.
That upset seems to be a long shot, with the Bulls facing a team that made the Final Four last year and is 26-3 at home in the past two seasons. But USF coach Stan Heath is reminding his players that they've pulled off improbable road wins this season, so nothing is out of the Bulls' reach.
"I looked back on the film from last year, and we played them wire to wire," said Heath, whose team trailed the Wildcats by two with 1:15 to play in a 70-61 home loss. "It was a game in the last three, four minutes, (that) we had a legitimate chance to pull off. They're a good, good team. We're going to prepare as hard as we can to try to steal a win. Hopefully, we can turn it into a Georgetown situation, where we come in as the underdog, we just come together and find a way to win."
The Georgetown game was just three weeks ago — the Bulls knocked off the then-No. 7 Hoyas on the road, putting themselves squarely in the conversation for the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years. Since then, they've dropped three of four, leaving the Bulls (16-10, 6-8 Big East) in a four-way tie for ninth place, one loss away from 13th in the conference.
The Big East logjam is the center of the NCAA bubble — just as the Bulls have fallen, Connecticut has won three straight to move back into contention.
Heath said the top of the Big East might not be as dominant as last year, but he's more aware of his conference's depth than ever before.
"That's our league. You look at UConn. You can even say, 'Yeah, boy, looks like South Florida should beat UConn,' " Heath said. "That team is ridiculously loaded. We can't kid ourselves and say, 'Hey, you know what, USF's here (arm held high), they're here (arm low).' We're all in the same boat. It's who comes to play that game, offensively, defensively, who comes together as a team. Whoever does wins."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.