TAMPA — His team’s brand of play — low on finesse and field-goal proficiency, high on grit and grunt work — often has prompted USF coach Brian Gregory to categorize some of his games as “rock fights.”
The Bulls don’t play a pretty style, entering this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament last in the league in scoring offense (62.7 ppg), and second in scoring defense (62.7). They employ mostly a methodical pace; their 64.9 possessions per 40 minutes ranks 320th of 350 Division I teams.
And they’ve surrendered the fewest offensive rebounds (235) in the league.
“They force you to play in the mud,” Temple coach Aaron McKie said.
Meet the team many believe can dirty up the AAC tourney bracket in short order. The ninth-seeded Bulls (14-17, 7-11), winners of three of their last four, enter Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, as the quintessential team nobody wants to play.
“We’re probably playing our best basketball this season right now,” Gregory said.
Let the rocks fall where they may, starting Thursday at 1 p.m. against No. 8 UCF (16-14, 7-11).
“They’re well-coached, they have a lot of experience,” Knights coach Johnny Dawkins said. “Their guys play very hard, and I think those are the qualities of a team that’s gonna be competitive every night.”
Don’t take Dawkins’ word for it. Ask Mountain West tournament champ Utah State. Or ACC regular-season champ Florida State. Or AAC tourney top seed Cincinnati.
The Bulls ― who had no one picked for the coaches All-AAC first, second or third teams ― took all of them to the brink.
In a season that dawned with the devastating loss of reigning AAC Freshman of the Year Alexis Yetna (knee) and his frontcourt backup, Mayan Kiir (left program), Gregory’s club had to adjust on the fly. Initially, the adjustment was rough.
Seven-foot sophomore Michael Durr had to grow up, and fast. Junior Justin Brown had to transition from the wing to the four-spot. Veteran guards Laquincy Rideau and David Collins, whose relentless dribble penetration represented the crux of the offense, often tried doing too much.
But through it all, the Bulls fought — even when they couldn’t finish.
They fell to Utah State on a buzzer beater in overtime on a neutral floor in December. Three days later in Sunrise, they led FSU by 10 with 6½ minutes to go, but wilted down the stretch and lost 66-60.
In early January, they led Memphis at home by 14 with fewer than 13 minutes to play, but lost 68-64. Last Tuesday at the Yuengling Center, they squandered a 13-point lead to Cincinnati in the final 13 minutes in a 79-67 defeat.
But they’ll head to Fort Worth with momentum and perhaps mojo. Highlighting their recent surge was Saturday’s 61-60 home win against SMU, won on Rideau’s 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In the four games before that, Durr averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. In that same span, Brown averaged 17.3 points and shot 13-for-28 (46.4 percent) from long range.
“Those guys get after you defensively,” said McKie, who watched USF score 11 of the game’s last 12 points in his team’s 64-58 loss to the Bulls two weekends ago.
“And Michael Durr is developing and growing as a basketball player, and Justin Brown is starting to make shots for those guys. They’re starting to peak at the right time.”
It would behoove the Goliaths in this week’s field to take notice.
Those rock fights can get crazy.