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USF’s men in March Madness? We’re saying there’s a chance

In a conference teeming with parity, the notion of USF reaching the NCAA Tournament isn’t far-fetched.
USF coach Brian Gregory's team (8-11, 1-5 American Athletic Conference) is on a four-game skid entering Sunday afternoon's contest at No. 25 Houston. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA ― They can’t seem to buy a win, a break or even a 3-pointer. Their offense remains out of sorts, and their struggle to close games has become chronic.

A full week before February, the NIT aspirations of the USF men (8-11, 1-5 American Athletic Conference) are fading fast. But strangely, their NCAA hopes are not.

The Bulls, whose collective fight never has been questioned, still have a fighting chance. Not for an at-large bid, mind you, but for the automatic one given to the AAC tournament champ.

Before you accuse us of getting an early jump on the Gasparilla libations, hear us out. Listed below are three sane reasons a Bulls berth in March Madness could come to fruition. Granted, the scenario’s not very likely, but it’s darn plausible.

1. The AAC has no juggernaut

USF guard David Collins, left, goes up for a shot against Memphis forward D.J. Jeffries during the second half of the Tigers' recent 68-64 win in Tampa. The Bulls squandered a 14-point second-half lead in the defeat. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

For proof, look no farther than Tulsa’s 80-40 embarrassment Wednesday of No. 20 Memphis. Or Tulsa’s recent 31-point loss at Cincinnati. Or Cincinnati’s five-point loss at Tulane. Get the picture?

Barely three weeks into January, no one remains undefeated in conference play, and 10 of the 12 teams have at least two league losses. No team is in the top 25 of the latest NET rankings, and only two (Wichita State, Houston) are in the top 40. This year’s AAC tourney in Fort Worth is there for the taking, and if nothing else, the Bulls have proven they can hang with anyone on a given night.

2. Defense wins championships

The Bulls are allowing a league-low 61.9 points a game while ranking dead last in the AAC in field-goal percentage defense (45.3) and 3-point defense (36.0). What does that say? Teams struggle to get shots off against USF in the half-court.

Entering Sunday’s game at No. 25 Houston (2 p.m., CBS Sports Network), the Bulls are the only AAC team to have allowed fewer than 1,000 field-goal attempts, and the 378 3-point tries they’ve surrendered are third-fewest. Problem is, they’re not complementing their stinginess with any sort of offensive rhythm, which leads us to…

3. There’s hope for the offense

USF guard Xavier Castaneda (1) shoots over Wichita State guard Tyson Etienne (1) while getting fouled during the second half of the Shockers' 56-43 triumph Tuesday at the Yuengling Center. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Before going frigid from 3-point range (6-for-41) the last two contests, the Bulls were shooting a respectable 42 percent from long distance for the season. The law of averages suggests USF won’t remain in a funk forever.

Nonetheless, they must be more balanced and prudent on the offensive end.

USF ranks 237th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to advanced-metrics extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy, and its 10.2 assists per game rank dead last in the league. Such shoddy numbers can be attributed in part to some guys trying to do too much.

“Offensively you can see you’re pressing a little bit, and that’s natural,” Bulls coach Brian Gregory said.

Not to mention fixable.

Guards David Collins and Laquincy Rideau have subsisted on drawing fouls via dribble penetration, but a kick-out to a wing for an open 3-pointer wouldn’t hurt now and again. If the Bulls get hot from long range and force defenses to stretch, that frees up 7-footer Michael Durr, who has developed an effective baby hook.

“We just have to get back to moving the ball, guys off the ball moving as drives occur, guys off the ball moving as the ball goes into the post, and different things like that,” Gregory said. “You see it, you show it, and now you’ve got to work on it, and now you’ve got to execute it in games.”