Sorry to burst your bubble, fans, but USF still has work to do

The men’s basketball team has a chance to rack up quality wins in the next two weeks.
The USF bench celebrates the lead over the East Carolina during the second half at the Yuengling Center n Feb. 10. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
The USF bench celebrates the lead over the East Carolina during the second half at the Yuengling Center n Feb. 10. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published February 12

TAMPA — Suddenly, people can’t look away from a program previously deemed an eyesore.

USF, the surprise of the college hoops stratosphere, has transitioned from doormat to darling in Year 2 of the Brian Gregory Era. Its current five-game win streak is its longest in conference play in 27 years. And not only are the Bulls (17-6, 7-4 AAC) winning, they’re winning in bizarre, breathtaking fashion.

When they’re not beating buzzers (see SMU), they’re rallying from double-digit halftime deficits (see East Carolina) or holding on for dear life after squandering immense leads (see Memphis).

Related: Bulls men top East Carolina in OT for fifth consecutive win

“There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and ... I’m excited because we keep getting better,” Gregory said. “So I’m excited to see how good we could get by the end of the year.”

By then, maybe ― maybe ― realistic fans can add bracketology to the Bulls’ lexicon. To do it now is premature.

While USF hoops finally is back on the map, it’s not on the NCAA Tournament bubble. At least not yet.

For all the excitement this club has forged, it hasn’t earned what a selection committee would deem a quality win at this point. The Bulls are 67th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, which have replaced RPI as the committee’s primary evaluation tool. But they’re 0-3 against teams ranked 66th or better.

Their best win at this point was against Memphis (68th). Their only other triumph against a top-100 club was a 76-68 home victory against Connecticut (79th) on Jan. 2.

Check out ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection for the 68-team field, and USF isn’t to be found. Currently, four American Athletic Conference teams (UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, Temple) are on Lunardi’s bracket; the AAC never has had more than four teams make the NCAAs in its five-year history.

Even the 32-team NIT isn’t yet a lock for the Bulls, especially in light of that event’s tweaked selection process. Now, Division I conference regular season champions who fail to win their respective league tournaments and don’t earn NCAA bids are guaranteed a spot in the NIT.

As a result, the at-large field is limited. Tulsa finished 19-12 (and 12-6 in the AAC) last season, but wasn’t extended an NIT invitation. In 2016, Gregory’s Georgia Tech squad won 19 regular season games (two against top-20 opponents) and finished 8-10 in the ACC, but was seeded only fourth in the NIT.

Fortunately for USF, its entire postseason outlook can change by month’s end. Four consecutive quality wins are there for the taking, including Wednesday night’s showdown at UCF (46th in NET rankings), which comes to the Yuengling Center on Feb. 27.

Sandwiched between that pair of rivalry games are a home contest Saturday against Temple (55th) and a Feb. 23 trip to Houston (seventh). If the Bulls can go 2-2 or even 3-1 in that stretch, the postseason talk becomes warranted.

But now, it’s way too early.

“I think one of the things this team has been great at is staying focused on the task at hand, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve gotten better,” Gregory said. “We haven’t looked ahead and said, ‘Okay, in this next four-game stretch ...’ We’re just taking it game by game.”

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.