TAMPA — Stan Heath had been relatively relaxed in the moments before Sunday's game against Cincinnati. That is, until he was reminded of the significance of the run his Bulls team has been making.
"My athletic director, Doug Woolard, grabbed me before the game and said, 'This is the biggest game in our history, you know that?' " Heath joked after his Bulls (18-11, 11-5 Big East) pulled out a 46-45 thriller. "I got really nervous after that."
Today, as the Bulls see a huge opportunity — and a difficult challenge — playing at No. 19 Louisville, a major part of why they're in the national spotlight is the way Heath's players haven't gotten caught up in the hoopla of their rise to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
"They've done a great job of just focusing on the next task," Heath said Tuesday, knowing well that one quality win could solidify the Bulls' NCAA chances. "They know that our league is so good, the teams are so talented that if you take a night off, you really don't give yourself a chance. They lock in on the next opponent, and that's the way it should be."
This opponent isn't one Heath worries about overlooking; USF's history against Louisville isn't pretty. The Bulls are 3-25 against the Cards, having lost 11 in a row. They've won once at Louisville, in 1998, but Heath said his team won't lack for confidence.
"This is a little different Louisville team than in the past. They've always had great talent," Heath said. "I think this team maybe doesn't have the same kind of depth as Louisville teams past. Because of that, I'm not sure they can go 40 minutes straight of pressing and really attacking you the way they've done in the past."
Relatively speaking, Louisville is vulnerable: The Cardinals have lost three Big East games at home, the most they've dropped since their first season in the conference in 2005-06. In the past two weeks, they've played close games; last-place DePaul took them to overtime, and Pittsburgh, which USF swept, lost by only three this week. The Cardinals lost at Cincinnati, which lost to the Bulls on Sunday.
USF has gained attention as one of the most compelling teams on the NCAA bubble, having overcome early injuries and nonconference struggles to battle for a top-four seed and double bye in the Big East tournament. Since Dec. 28, the Bulls haven't lost to an unranked opponent, which only Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina can boast.
Tonight is a different challenge: stepping up and beating a ranked opponent on the road, potentially filling that biggest hole in their NCAA resume. They'll have another chance at a key win Saturday at home against West Virginia, but for now, their focus is squarely on Louisville and a historic opportunity.
"The plays we're making out there, I feel like they're not really plays for us," senior Ron Anderson said after the Cincinnati win. "They're plays for the university, for the overall success of the program, really."