TAMPA — Stan Heath can't point to just one reason why last season's USF basketball team made an amazing run to the third round of the NCAA Tournament, while this year's squad sits last in the Big East.
These Bulls don't rebound nearly as well. The defense that was a signature last season, giving up the fewest points in Big East history, now allows more than six points more per game than a year ago.
But, as his team plays its final six regular-season games, including today at home against No. 12 Louisville, Heath recognizes that his players, for whatever reason, aren't as tough and resilient as they were last season.
"We were the direct opposite kind of team last year," Heath said at practice Wednesday, remembering the 2011-12 Bulls, who finished 22-14 and 12-6 in the Big East. "We could be down, could make three shots in the first half against Temple (in the NCAA second round) and look terrible offensively and (not care) and come out and play in the second half. We had a different mind-set. That's why last year, we were special. We didn't put our heads down, didn't get discouraged. It's a different group of guys."
USF is 1-11 in conference play, and even that win, against a Georgetown team now co-leading the Big East, is confounding and reminds the Bulls they should be able to play with anyone in the league. To some extent USF has, with seemingly every game a combination of one good half and one distinctly-not-good half.
Against Providence on Wednesday, the Bulls jumped to a 20-7 lead and were up 11 to open the second half, then hit a terrible lull as the Friars went on a 23-2 run.
"I think we've had some habits that we've had a hard time breaking," Heath said. "Whether it's coming out of halftime, whether it's a slow start at the beginning of game, I do think we've had some recurring themes. That's difficult. In this league, it can affect you mentally. You play a really good game and maybe come up short, the next team you play is Syracuse or Louisville. It's hard to handle that. There's no breaks in this schedule at all."
USF fans know this well — the Bulls went 1-15 in their Big East debut in 2005-06 but have mustered at least three league wins in every season since. This season has played out much like 2010-11, where USF came off an NIT appearance, only to go 10-23 and struggle to a 3-15 league record.
Young players have picked up larger roles this season. Before Wednesday's loss and a 26-point game by junior Victor Rudd, freshman guard JaVontae Hawkins was the Bulls' leading scorer over a nine-game span; forward Zach LeDay has also seen more playing time.
"We're asking a lot from those guys this year, and it's tough," senior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "The transition from high school to Big East basketball is extremely tough, and some of the things that Coach tries to teach us on defense, you're not going to get it overnight. … One thing you can't teach is effort, and those two guys, they give maximum effort every single game. You're never going to question their effort on the court."
USF needs two wins in six games to avoid the worst Big East record in Heath's six seasons, but only one of those six opponents — DePaul (2-10), which USF hosts March 3 — has a losing record in conference play. The road doesn't get easier, so Heath needs his team to find a toughness to match its remaining schedule.
"You have to be mentally tough," he said. "We haven't been as mentally tough as we've needed to be this season. We're going to still keep fighting. That's all we can do."
View Greg Auman's blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.