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USF confident it can challenge Louisville


One team possesses a fresh banner, the other fresh wounds. One boasts the conference's stingiest 3-point defense; the other is the league's worst from long range. One has momentum, the other a two-game skid.

Such is the backdrop for tonight's renewal of Louisville-USF. Yet though logic clearly is stacked against the Bulls, maybe — just maybe — the planets are aligned for them.

"You never know," Bulls coach Stan Heath said Monday.

With hopes for a first-round conference tournament bye fading and postseason aspirations flickering, the Bulls (10-8, 1-4 AAC) must latch onto any positive — tangible or otherwise — they can excavate as they prepare for the reigning national champs.

Here's one: For 12th-ranked Louisville, this has strong trap-game characteristics.

The Cardinals (16-3, 5-1) are coming off their best game of the year, a high-charged 76-64 triumph at Connecticut that represented their first quality win. Four nights later, they arrive at the Sun Dome, where the atmosphere figures to be less hostile and the foe less acclaimed.

That might bode well for the Bulls, who quietly are coming off arguably their best effort of the season — win or lose — in Saturday's 61-54 loss to then-No. 19 Cincinnati.

"We were disappointed with the loss," Heath said, "but we certainly rebounded and defended. I thought our intensity level was very good. So we've got to build off of that."

A solid replication of Saturday's effort, when it trailed by four with 70 seconds to play, and USF has a fighting chance tonight. It owned the offensive glass (a 12-7 edge) against the American's top offensive rebounding team, handled the Bearcats' defensive looks effectively and clearly generated some confidence.

The Cards are "definitely beatable," senior Victor Rudd said moments after the Cincinnati game. "But we've got to handle their zone like we handled Cincinnati's zone … but theirs is gonna be more hectic than Cincinnati's was."

To be sure, how the Bulls handle Louisville's diversity of defensive looks could be key. Up top, sophomore Corey Allen Jr. — scoreless against Cincinnati — must be more aggressive, freshman PG Josh Heath must be poised and sophomore Javontae Hawkins (15 vs. Cincinnati) must stay sharp.

Defensively, the Bulls must keep a body on 6-foot-8 behemoth Montrezl Harrell, who had a double double at UConn, and minimize Louisville's penetration that would force USF's forwards to come off Harrell and supply help.

Fierce challenge, to be sure.

Yet feasible, as Saturday's effort showed.

"Obviously we have nothing to lose," Heath said. "Nobody's expecting us to do anything in this game except the guys in this locker room. So we have to be the ones that go out there fearless, go out there with confidence and go out there aggressive."

RECRUITING HITS HOME: Barring 11th-hour de-commitments, USF football coach Willie Taggart's 2014 signing class will feature six bay area signees, seven if counting Sarasota and Manatee counties as the bay area.

By contrast, Skip Holtz's three signing days as Bulls coach featured six total players from bay area schools, counting Sarasota-Manatee. Including the two southern counties, Taggart's first two Bulls signing classes will feature 17 local players.

AUDIBLE: "He hired me, gave me the opportunity to be here. We had a really good relationship, so at first it was a little sad. But after I really spent some time with him and we talked, I just saw him have almost just a relief, he had a smile on his face and it was like, he was ready." — Heath, responding to the retirement announcement of athletic director Doug Woolard.