TAMPA ― If nothing else, the USF men’s 68-64 loss Sunday to then-No. 21 Memphis reinforced an encouraging notion for its fan base.
Even without top low-post player Alexis Yetna (knee), the program remains on a steady ― albeit arduous ― climb toward relevance.
“Played pretty well (against Memphis), but now we need to take another step,” third-year coach Brian Gregory told reporters Thursday. “We need to keep getting better. We need to make plays down the stretch that help us finish games.”
As the Bulls prepare to find that finishing touch Saturday night at rival UCF (6 p.m., ESPNU), their progress bears quantifying, and reiterating.
While USF (8-9, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) has lost 28 in a row to ranked opposition, the most recent stretch of that drought barely resembles the earlier parts.
The Bulls’ last four defeats to ranked foes, including Sunday’s loss, have been by an average margin of 7.8 points. The 10 before that were by an average of 23.8.
Twenty-one of the first 24 losses in the skid were by double digits. Only one of the last four ― last season’s 71-59 loss at Houston ― has been by more than 10 points.
Translation: The Bulls now command respect. Whether they can commandeer a rival foe’s arena remains to be seen.
UCF (10-7, 1-4) isn’t ranked, but has won the last eight meetings in this series dating to January 2016, meaning a Bulls triumph at Addition Financial Arena would constitute a breakthrough.
Six-foot-11, 240-pound junior Collin Smith (13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is the only returning starter from last season’s 24-win UCF team that nearly upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. His matchup with rapidly evolving USF 7-foot sophomore Michael Durr could be the game’s most intriguing.
“(Smith) is one of the most versatile big guys in the league,” Gregory said. “Tremendous passer; maybe doesn’t get enough credit for that. Tremendous offensive rebounder.”
If Durr (5.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) can hold his own inside, and if the Bulls’ perimeter defense makes the trip to Orlando, USF should find itself in position for its first victory against the Knights since March 4, 2015.
Though UCF shot nearly 50 percent (12-for-26) from 3-point range in Tuesday night’s 74-55 triumph at Tulane, its season average (30.5 percent) from that distance ranks near the bottom of the AAC.
On the flip side, USF ranks last in the league in 3-point defense (35.8), but held Memphis to a 5-for-15 effort Sunday.
“I think at times it might look like a rock fight,” Gregory said. “And we’ve got to be okay with maybe winning the game on the defensive end. We’ve got to do a great job of defending their 3-point shooters.”