TAMPA — Stan Heath's second season at USF should end in about two weeks, give or take a day, and the way his Bulls close things out will go a long way toward establishing the program's perception entering next season.
If the Bulls (8-18, 3-11) lose their remaining four games and make a quick exit in their Big East tournament debut, they'll finish with exactly three conference wins for the third year in a row, frustratingly stagnant near the bottom of the league standings.
But given how the Bulls have played close against some of the league's toughest teams, the next four games (tonight at Seton Hall, home against West Virginia and Cincinnati, then at Rutgers) can all be considered potential wins, even with a thin USF team further depleted by injuries.
"Our team continues to fight, to compete as hard as we can," Heath said. "We're spending extra time in a lot of different areas. Guys are coming in in the morning, getting extra free throws in, extra shots up. We feel if we can improve in that area down the stretch, it can help us win some ball games."
Wins against Seton Hall (5-9 in Big East) and Rutgers (1-13) could help with recruiting, as USF is competing with those two on a few key prospects this spring, including some from New Jersey and New York.
Beating the Scarlet Knights — after sweeping them last season — would keep Rutgers below USF in the Big East hierarchy. Rutgers has never finished above .500 in the Big East, and will likely finish with three or fewer league wins for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Bulls right now would face Seton Hall again in the opening round of the Big East tournament, and making it to the second day at Madison Square Garden is the new equivalent to making the league tournament in recent years, when only the league's top 12 teams played.
Finishing the season with five or six wins would show improvement, even if USF's overall record is down from last season.
And if the Bulls stick around for a second day in New York by winning a first-round game, that experience would be significant for a young team that will return all but two players.
THIS AND THAT: Women's basketball needs a strong finish to get back on the NCAA bubble after a costly loss at West Virginia. Projections have eight Big East teams making the NCAA field, but USF may need to make the tournament semifinals to get back in that group. … After a rough sophomore year, softball pitcher Kristen Gordon is looking sharp again, with a 0.65 ERA in USF's 10-5 start. Opponents are hitting .147 against her. Senior pitchers Cristi Ecks and Bree Spence, both returning from serious injuries, have yet to find their rhythm. … Biggest issue from baseball's opening weekend? The bullpen's ERA is 12.46. Six relievers pitched for the Bulls and all six gave up at least one run. Starters Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stultz looked good, giving up a combined three earned runs in 13 innings.
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.