TAMPA — Stan Heath knows that his star guard hasn't been shooting as well, that his post players need to get the ball more, that his team needs to limit its turnovers. But if the Bulls are going to bounce back from a slump that has seen them lose four of their past five games, the turnaround will start on defense.
"We have to be a good defensive team that gets rebounds, gets steals, gets deflections and gets in the open court," USF's basketball coach said Friday in preparation for tonight's home game against Providence. "I don't really look at halfcourt offense. We have to do those things, but that's not why we won games. If you go look back at film, we were up and down the court. (Jarrid) Famous can run, (Augustus) Gilchrist can run, (Dominique) Jones is phenomenal in the open court. That's what we do. We've got to create that style on the court."
The Bulls (16-11, 6-9 Big East) haven't forced enough turnovers in their past four losses, averaging just 8.8, which limits how many transition baskets they can get from speedy guards Mike Mercer and Anthony Crater. The Bulls have averaged six fastbreak points in those losses, but Providence gives them a chance to get back to their ball-hawking ways.
The four-game winning streak that drew national attention to USF a month ago started with an overtime win at Providence, one in which the Bulls trailed by nine with 40 seconds to play and used a backcourt steal to set up a 3-pointer to force the extra period. The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 20 points off turnovers in that win, the kind of numbers Heath associates with winning basketball.
Providence (12-15, 4-11) likely hasn't forgotten the last meeting, and Heath said his team must play better over the length of the game if it wants to sweep the Friars.
"They really outplayed us. We caught some breaks, created some breaks, but we were very fortunate," Heath said. "We got on a roll there late and found a way to steal one. I can see why they'd feel like they gave us a Christmas gift. They really were, for 38 minutes, the better team on the court."
The Bulls didn't have Gilchrist in the first meeting, and Heath said the sophomore forward needs to get more touches tonight after taking only two shots in 30 minutes in Wednesday's loss at No. 7 Villanova. Gilchrist says his first goal isn't more shots but more impact on defense.
"The key to getting back on the right track is to play hard defensively, take over the ball and not have many turnovers," Gilchrist said. "Maybe a little smarter decisions, too."
The first meeting between the schools saw Jones score a school-record 46 points. By comparison, he has totaled just 55 in the past four losses. After shooting 35 percent or less just twice in the first 22 games, the junior guard who is third in the Big East in scoring (21.3 points per game) has done it four times — all losses — in the past five games.
Senior point guard Chris Howard has only two home games remaining in his Bulls career, and he said his focus will be on limiting his mistakes — he had just three turnovers in that four-game winning streak. He said the Bulls still have their hopes set on finishing with a .500 record in the conference, but they'll need to win tonight to have a chance at that.
"We have to create offense through our defense," he said. "That was a big key when we got on that four-game winning streak — we were taking care of the ball and creating offense with our defense. … You have to win the game in front of you, and right now, Providence is that game."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.