TAMPA — For all the Bulls' recent success in putting together an unprecedented five Big East wins, USF has won without showing any consistent ability to hit 3-point shots in conference play.
"It's not our strength," said coach Stan Heath, preparing for a key home game tonight against Cincinnati. "It would help us, but we can't just go out and think we'll be a 50 percent team on 3-pointers. If we could just hit a few, it would help keep defenses honest against us."
The Bulls (15-9, 5-7 Big East) were a solid perimeter shooting team in nonconference play, hitting 10 3-pointers in wins against Florida Atlantic and San Francisco. They hit at least six 3s in four other games, but in 12 Big East games, the most they've hit is five, and that was Jan. 5 in a loss to Notre Dame.
USF enters tonight's game shooting a Big East-worst 22.9 percent beyond the arc. The next lowest team is at 28.5 percent, though the Bulls face a Cincinnati team hitting 29.6 percent.
"In the Big East, the coaches have a good feel for your tendencies, so you're playing against a scouting report that understands how you like to get your points," Heath said.
One reason the Bulls might be better in their final six games — including four in the Sun Dome — is the return of forward Augustus Gilchrist, who was 8-of-11 on 3-pointers (73 percent) in USF's first eight games before being sidelined for two months with a severely sprained ankle. Gilchrist returned in Saturday's loss at Marquette, going 1-of-3 beyond the arc on the way to seven points.
Heath called Gilchrist "our best 3-point shooter," a title that in his absence went to junior guard Dominique Jones, who leads the Big East in scoring at 24.7 points per game. Jones has hit 30.5 percent of his 3-pointers in Big East play, and senior Chris Howard has hit 21.9 percent, but the rest of the team has struggled.
Senior guard Mike Mercer, who has found other ways to score, is 1-of-17 in Big East play, his lone make coming against Marquette. Heath had identified 3-point shooting as a weakness in the offseason, but freshman guards Mike Burwell and Shaun Noriega, brought in specifically as 3-point support, aren't even making it into games.
Burwell hasn't played in the past five games and has hit one of his past 10 3-point attempts, and Noriega, who hit four of his first six 3-point attempts, hasn't hit one in more than two months, missing his past eight. Noriega has missed the only two shots he has taken in conference play.
"Defense and the intensity of the game are two things my young guys can improve on," Heath said of their lack of playing time. "I'm not saying they won't be called upon, but you have to ask, 'Do we sacrifice other parts of our game to be better at shooting 3s?' They've been playing with progress in practice lately."
Cincinnati is coming off a 60-48 win at Connecticut, which matches USF for the fewest 3-pointers in conference play with 38 this season. The Huskies went 3-of-15 against the Bearcats, matching USF's 4-of-20 showing in the loss at Marquette.
Heath said his players relied too much on 3-pointers Saturday. In their five Big East wins, they haven't taken more than 15 shots beyond the arc, while they have more than 15 in four of their past five losses.
"Our last game, we took too many. We settled too often," Heath said.
A win tonight would give USF back some of the momentum it had two weeks ago with a four-game winning streak, but that means someone else besides Jones must step up and hit big shots for the Bulls.
"This team has to be balanced," Howard said. "Every player has to bring what they can to the table, and sometimes some players are going to have to do some things people probably don't think they can do."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.