TAMPA — It has been 20 years since USF was in the NCAA Tournament. But one Bulls player has been there during his career.
Senior Ron Anderson played in the 2008 tournament as a freshman at Kansas State, helping the young Wildcats upset sixth-seeded USC in the opening round. That motivates him as he tries to lead the Bulls to their ultimate goal.
"That's why we're trying to take it day by day. I'm trying to let everyone know how blessed and fortunate we are," said Anderson, preparing Friday for today's game against Cincinnati at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"It would really be tough for me to say my freshman year was the only year I made it. We have our goal, we have our mission, and we won't be satisfied until we reach that."
The idea of USF making the tournament a year after going 10-23 overall and 3-15 in the Big East would have seemed farfetched last season. But at the Big East tournament, where USF knocked off Villanova in the opening round, then lost by 26 to Cincinnati, Anderson turned to his fellow juniors, Augustus Gilchrist and Hugh Robertson, and told them what the Bulls were capable of.
"I looked at Gus and looked at Hugh, and I said we were going to make the tournament," he said. "I know some of the guys in that locker room, probably after that game and after that season, were like, 'There's no way.' I really felt that, and going into the summer working out, going into preseason working out, building that chemistry with the team, I knew we were going to be a good team."
Anderson, second on the team averaging 5.7 rebounds per game and fifth in scoring at 7.7 points, is a player coach Stan Heath challenges to set the tone when it comes to rebounding. In his first NCAA Tournament, Anderson had 10 points and eight rebounds against USC.
The 6-foot-8, 237-pound senior has a familiar challenge today in a key bubble matchup: Bearcats forward Yancy Gates, who checks in at 6-9, 260. In USF's season-ending lost last year, Gates went 10-of-11 and finished with a game-high 25 points. The Bulls were outrebounded 32-24 as well.
The Bearcats often run a four-guard lineup with Gates in the post, and Heath's challenge is knowing when to use Anderson, perhaps his best help defender, to hedge on defense without leaving the post open.
Heath is savoring this final stretch and the opportunity it presents.
"It's great to be playing games that have a lot of meaning," he said. "I'm excited about it. The players are excited about it. We're not looking at it as pressure."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.