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USF Bulls ride historic defensive strength toward possible NCAA Tournament berth


USF vs. West Virginia

When/where: noon; Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa

TV/radio: BHSN; 1250-AM

Records: USF 19-11, 12-5 Big East; West Virginia 18-12, 8-9

Notable: West Virginia is the only Big East team the Bulls haven't beaten since joining the league in 2005, but there's much on the line today. A USF win coupled with a Georgetown loss gives the Bulls a top-four seed and a double bye in the Big East tournament, and further solidifies their position in the NCAA Tournament. … West Virginia has lost seven of 10 but has impressive Big East wins over Notre Dame (by 27) and Georgetown (by 12). Watch out for Mountaineers senior F Kevin Jones (20.0 points per game, 11.2 rebounds) and senior G Darryl "Truck" Bryant (17.1 ppg). … It's also senior day for USF, which will honor F Augustus Gilchrist, F Ron Anderson and G Hugh Robertson. Gilchrist is the team's leading scorer despite averaging just 9.93 points per game, so this could be the first Bulls team not to have a player averaging double figures in scoring. The Bulls are 14-1 at home and expect their largest crowd of the season.

Greg Auman, Times staff writer

TAMPA — Asked if there was a moment when coach Stan Heath realized he might have a special basketball team at USF this season, he recalled a time in November when he looked at his stat sheet and saw the Bulls were giving up the fewest points in the Big East.

"To me, that was a big deal. I told our team that, and it was a bigger deal for them," Heath said Thursday while preparing for today's regular-season finale against West Virginia. "And that was a lightbulb for me: 'These guys really like that.' They don't mind that being their identity and who they are."

As USF (19-11, 12-5 Big East) looks to solidify its first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years, Heath's team can do better than the best defense in the conference. In allowing 57.4 points per game, USF is on course to have the best defense in Big East history and the best ever for a Bulls team.

"It all comes down to defense," said junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, whose team ranks No. 8 in scoring defense in Division I (Wisconsin leads at 51.8). "It's something we pride ourselves a great deal on. To be the No. 1 scoring defense in the Big East, that means a lot. We play in a very competitive league. We hang our hats on defense, and we're glad to see it paying off for us and helping us get some major wins here."

Defense has been central in USF's past seven games, during which the Bulls have held all seven opponents to 56 points or fewer and at least 19 points under their season average. Cincinnati mustered 45 points — eight under its previous low for the season — and Louisville matched its season low with 51 in a home loss Wednesday.

"That's something we should really be proud of," senior forward Ron Anderson said. "I don't want people to overlook that. Coach Heath has done a great job of trying to get the guys to buy in to defense."

Barring a letdown, USF will trump the Big East's all-time low for points allowed; Georgetown gave up 57.8 per game in 2006-07. The Bulls will easily reset the school marks for points allowed (60.1, in 1985-86), and they're holding opponents to 39.2 percent shooting, better than their record of 39.9, set in 2002-03.

A Bulls win combined with a loss by Georgetown today at Marquette (after Notre Dame's victory Friday) gives USF a top-four seed and a double bye to the quarterfinals of next week's Big East tournament, something unfathomable a month ago, given USF's history in the league. The Bulls will be seeded no lower than sixth.

"Stan doesn't get enough credit for the job he's done in a really tough situation, rebuilding this program," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said after Sunday's game. "He's one of the best defensive coaches around."

It's fitting, then, that USF's final opponent, West Virginia, has done a number on the Bulls defensively, holding USF to 59 points or fewer in all seven meetings (all Mountaineers wins) since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005. While many pundits have said USF punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament with the win Wednesday at No. 19 Louisville, Heath and his players are focused on continuing to build their resume.

Today is senior day for three key Bulls — Anderson, forward Augustus Gilchrist and guard Hugh Robertson — and the end of their college careers will be a different finish from a year ago, when Anderson can remember senior Jarrid Famous going out uneventfully after a 10-23 season. Every win gives them a better chance of going out the way they want to.

"We were standing on the loading dock, and (Famous) and coach just shook hands. That was it. No NIT. No (NCAA Tournament)," Anderson said. "I thought, 'Are we just done?' Now, we're going to keep on going until we can't go anymore."

. fast facts

Historic defense

USF leads the Big East in scoring defense at 57.4 points per game, on pace to set the conference record. The top-five single-season scoring defense figures in Big East history:

USF Bulls ride historic defensive strength toward possible NCAA Tournament berth 03/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 2, 2012 10:49pm]
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