Sunday, November 19, 2017
Sports

USF Bulls' NCAA Tournament dreams take just a minor hit

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TAMPA

Relax. They lost a game. Nothing more.

Take a deep breath. They lost a bit of momentum. That's all.

If you can, try to stop flailing your arms in disappointment. At times, they seemed to lose sight of the little things that have carried them all year. Nothing fatal.

What the USF Bulls did not lose Saturday was their chance at the NCAA Tournament. Despite the analysts, despite the paranoia, despite the prevailing wind, their goal is as alive as ever.

Honest.

I know, I know. Basketball on the edge is a very difficult thing, particularly for a program that hasn't flirted with the NCAA Tournament in two decades. Win, and all things look possible. Lose, and the basket seems small in the distance.

For that reason, there might be a temptation by some to overreact to the Bulls' disappointing 50-44 loss to West Virginia, as if it erased the upset at No. 19 Louisville last week, as if it somehow devalued the 12 Big East wins the team has this year.

You know what Saturday's defeat meant? It meant the Bulls allowed doubt to linger. It meant they didn't slam the door. It meant their future might be decided inside a room filled with slide rules and flow charts.

All of that said, I still put USF on the "probably" side of the tournament. Put it this way: It accomplished a lot more by beating Louisville than it fumbled away by losing to West Virginia.

Let's be honest. If USF had beaten the Mountaineers, it would have been in the "almost certainly" category. If it could have shot better (2-of-14 from behind the 3-point line). If it could have protected the ball better (it had 10 second-half turnovers). If it could have finished stronger (it didn't score in the last 3:03 of the game). If it could have been as mentally sharp as it has in other games.

A win Saturday would have left the Bulls with a 13-5 record in the league, and the Bulls could have spent most of the Big East tournament debating what NCAA seed they deserved.

Instead, USF probably needs to win a game to remove all doubt. Two wouldn't hurt.

The thing is, USF coach Stan Heath wanted to win, anyway. Go figure.

"I think we just need to win," he said. "We need to keep winning and let the chips fall where they may. We're going to try to win the (Big East) tournament. When it's all said and done, maybe Louisville was all we needed. I don't know. I'm not going to take that chance. I don't care if we were 26-1, and I bet (Syracuse coach Jim) Boeheim feels the same way. You don't go into the game saying, 'We've already made it.' You just go play."

Heath was asked if the defeat took some of the air out of the balloon for his team. He frowned as if he had been asked to solve a problem in quantum physics.

"I don't know about air or this or that or the other," he said. "I don't care. Air? No air? That's your call."

Still, it is impossible for an onlooker not to wonder how the selection committee will look at USF. There is such a moving target aspect to the tournament. Ask yourself: If a brand-name basketball school had the same resume as USF, would there be the same doubt from the bracket artists? Probably not.

"I still have a chip on my shoulder because I don't think we get respect," Heath said. "We've done a lot in this league. We have to continue to earn respect."

Inside their league, the Bulls have done so. Ask Bob Huggins, the crusty old coach of West Virginia who has made a few NCAAs himself.

"I think they're fine," Huggins said. "Their RPI is in the top 50. There are other people in the league who aren't close to that. So they've, obviously, played a better schedule than some people."

Granted, the Bulls need to play better than they did Saturday. As a team without a great scorer, it is always going to have to play a smart, scrappy game to win. USF is one of those teams that always seems to be tied sometime in the final four minutes of a game. To win, it has to take care of the ball and make big baskets.

For USF, that's the easy way to make the tournament. Who wants to put its future on the whims of men inside a room?

Who knows what those guys are thinking?

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