TAMPA ― He knew the climb to respectability and relevance would include some agonizing points.
In recent weeks, USF third-year coach Brian Gregory has watched his team work its way into position for a significant step up, only to lose its footing in the final moment.
“Very frustrating,” 7-foot sophomore Michael Durr said.
Three days after a 76-74 overtime loss to likely NCAA Tournament qualifier Utah State (on a tip-in at the buzzer), the Bulls squandered a 10-point lead in the last 6½ minutes in a 66-60 defeat to No. 10 FSU.
Then on Tuesday, Gregory’s club (8-8, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) rallied from a 13-point second-half hole at East Carolina and briefly took the lead, but failed to score on its final two possessions in a 62-59 loss.
“We’re miserable to be around right now, just due to the fact that we are getting there,” Gregory said Friday. “But as I’ve said time and time again, at that point where you’re so close, it’s the most difficult time.”
The law of averages suggests the Bulls ultimately will keep climbing. So does Gregory’s philosophy of clinging to core values (defense and gang rebounding). Avoiding turnovers (they had seven down the stretch against FSU) and taking more prudent shots in the waning moments also would help.
Fulfill those objectives, and a team already thisclose to a breakthrough could reach it as soon as Sunday.
No. 21 Memphis (12-3, 1-1), still adjusting to the recent departure of 7-foot freshman (and certain lottery pick) James Wiseman, comes to the Yuengling Center for a 4 p.m. tipoff.
With a victory, USF snaps its 27-game losing skid to ranked foes dating to February 2012. The Tigers, losers of two in a row, are still teeming with future NBA talent including 6-9 freshman Precious Achiuwa (15.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg).
“Instead of five first-rounders, they have four,” Gregory said.
But FSU was equally loaded, and the Bulls nearly knocked them off.
At this stage of the climb, that’s cause for encouragement ― and frustration.
“When you break through to the other side, then you’re able to look back and realize maybe that wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going through it,” Gregory said.
“But it’s tough, and it’s tough on the guys because they know how close they are. But our big thing is, if we’re that close, if we keep getting better, then we’re gonna get there.”