TAMPA — Stan Heath is careful not to allow his focus, or his team's, to shift beyond its next opponent and the next must-win game, but with a home victory tonight against Villanova, the Bulls will have a place in conversation for the NCAA Tournament bubble.
How many wins does USF (15-10, 8-4 Big East) need to make the NCAAs? The consensus is that a 4-2 finish by the Bulls entering the Big East tournament — that's wins against Villanova and at Pittsburgh, then at home against Cincinnati and West Virginia, allowing for losses at Syracuse and Louisville — would give them a worthy resume if they win at least one game in Manhattan.
That would put the Bulls at 20-12, with a 12-6 conference mark. In the Big East's history, only five teams — including USF in 2010 — have won 20 and missed the NCAA cut, and that's five out of 152. Fall short of that and finish 11-7 in the league? Only five Big East teams (one since 2003) have finished four games above .500 in conference and missed the NCAAs. Again, that's five out of 124. And no team has finished six games over in the Big East (like 12-6) and been snubbed by the NCAA.
Heath likes the bubble talk, even if it currently has USF as a long shot, knowing that it adds importance and urgency to each game for his players.
"I think it's good to talk about. It creates interest. I think it keeps the players motivated, shooting for things," Heath said Monday. "We want to be in that conversation. We know we have a lot of work to get there, but we want to be in that conversation."
Win tonight and USF will be five games over .500 in conference play for the third time in its history. The Bulls got there twice in 1990 (at 7-2 and 9-4 in the Sun Belt) on the way to their first NCAA Tournament berth, and twice again in 2001 (6-1 and 9-4 in Conference USA) before losing four of their last five to miss the postseason entirely.
That Heath's team is finding this success in the Big East is all the more incredible. In USF's first six seasons in the Big East, they won two straight conference games only twice, both in the 2009-10 season. This year's team has already done that three times, including the current two-game streak. After going 11-57 in their first four years in the Big East, the Bulls are now a competitive 20-28 in the past three.
The bubble is a slippery place to be, so USF cannot afford a letdown, wild as it seems to think of a Bulls loss to Villanova as a letdown. It's a much higher expectation than USF is used to playing with, but Heath likes that challenge.
"The players want that. They know they've put themselves in a position where, a couple months ago, nobody thought we'd be," he said. "Now they feel like now we're in a position where we have a chance, and go for it. What do we have to lose?"
THIS AND THAT: Baseball opens its season Friday with three games in the Big Ten-Big East Challenge, with a 10 a.m. opener against Ohio State in St. Petersburg. Coach Lelo Prado, who has a mix of newcomers and key players returning from injuries, is optimistic about making solid improvements from last year's disappointment of missing the Big East tournament. … Don't be surprised if USF is a contender for Maryland transfer QB Danny O'Brien, a former ACC rookie of the year who strongly considered East Carolina when Skip Holtz coached there. … Softball is off to a 3-1 start, and Ken Eriksen has to like his balance at the plate, with seven players having at least three RBIs.