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All about the Big East: Do you Bull-ieve?

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All about the Big East: Do you Bull-ieve?
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Stan Heath has USF in the Big East title hunt with a 5-2 league mark

OK, raise your hand if you had USF as a possible Big East title contender.

(If you have your hand raised … well, let's just say you're a liar.)

While Pittsburgh, Villanova, Connecticut and Louisville have underachieved in relation to what was expected of them, the Bulls have overachieved.

USF is just 12-8 overall but 5-2 and tied for third in the league. Truthfully, though, other than a win over Seton Hall, the Bulls have beaten no one of note, which is a big reason they're 79th in the RPI.

Four of their five conference wins have come over teams with losing league records. But don't knock USF for beating up on the league's have-nots; after all, the Bulls haven't been able to do that in the past.

This is the Bulls' seventh season in the Big East, and they already have more conference wins this season than they were able to manage in five of their previous six seasons in the league. Only in 2009-10 had they been able to win more than four league games in a season.

USF's latest victim was DePaul; the Bulls rolled to a 75-59 road victory over the Blue Demons on Sunday. It was USF's third Big East victory in a row, one shy of the school record set in 2009-10.

"When you've been on the other side of the stick, you really appreciate winning a lot more," USF coach Stan Heath told reporters after the win. "And the guys really appreciate winning a lot more. Even when guys don't have great games, they're cheering for each other."

The Bulls have been winning with defense. They haven't allowed more than 65 points since giving up 70 to Kansas on Dec. 3, and they have held each of their past five opponents to 60 points or fewer. They have held 15 opponents this season to 60 or fewer. Their defensive prowess makes up for a mediocre offense; only two players average in double figures, the Bulls have more turnovers than assists and they shoot just 33.2 percent from 3-point range.

"Our team has evolved, finally getting all the healthy pieces and building chemistry," Heath told reporters late last week. "I think the first thing we were trying to do was become a very good defensive team and give ourselves a chance. As time has gone on, we're working more and improving our offensive game."

[Related: Marquette looks to find its offense vs. USF]

The offense has been more efficient of late, and Heath said freshman point man Anthony Collins is a reason. He has 37 assists in conference games and a 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio against league foes.

"Anthony Collins really is the lightning rod when it comes to assists and making plays," Heath told reporters. "I think what happens is players feed off of each other. It's become contagious a little bit, and it's definitely made our offense a lot better."

Don't laugh, but that stingy defense and improving offense might be enough to keep the Bulls in the Big East race for a while. They play just two teams with winning league records in their next seven games; included in that span are two games against both Providence and Pitt, as well as a home matchup against Villanova, a team they beat by 17 on the road. But the closing stretch is a tough one: at Syracuse, vs. Cincinnati, at Louisville and vs. West Virginia.

USF hasn't enjoyed life on the road; Sunday's victory over DePaul means the Bulls now are just 2-5 in true road games. Six of their remaining 11 games are on the road. But for a change, the Bulls are a team other league foes have to worry about.

"We're excited; we've never been here before," Heath told reporters Sunday, nicely summing up where the Bulls are in the league race.

3 to watch

USF at Marquette, Tuesday, 8 p.m., Big East syndication/Sportsnet New York/MASN/Comcast-Charter Sports Southeast/ESPN FullCourt: OK, is USF for real? This will be a big test for the Bulls. Marquette is 10-1 at home.

West Virginia at Syracuse, Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPNU: This is the teams' only meeting this season. WVU could use a marquee road win.

[Related: Syracuse's Boeheim passes Rupp for fourth on men's Division I all-time wins list]

Louisville at Seton Hall, Saturday, 8 p.m., Big East syndication/Sportsnet New York/MASN/ESPN FullCourt: Louisville still is looking for its first victory over a team with a winning conference record. Seton Hall takes a 10-0 home record into the week; the Pirates have Notre Dame at home Wednesday, then welcome in the Cardinals.

Who's hot?

Villanova G Maalik Wayns: Wayns has been on a scorching run of late. He had an embarrassing three-point outing against Syracuse on Jan. 11, going 0-of-7 from the field in 34 minutes. But in the three games since, he is averaging 30.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists; in addition, he shot 50.9 percent from the field and 90.9 from the line in those contests. Included in that run was a 39-point, 13-rebound, six-assist game in a loss to Cincinnati.

Louisville C Gorgui Dieng: Dieng is a sophomore from Senegal who played his high school ball at Huntington (W.Va.) Huntington Prep. Over his past three games, Dieng has averaged 11.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks while shooting 73.7 percent from the field.

Marquette G Darius Johnson-Odom: Consistency, thy name is Darius Johnson-Odom. He has scored either 18, 19 or 20 points in six consecutive games; he has had three 18-point outings, two 19-point games and one contest with 20. He has hit between five and seven shots from the floor in each of the six games and between two and four 3-pointers in each.

Who's not?

Connecticut C Andre Drummond: UConn has lost four of its past six, and Drummond is struggling. He is averaging 6.7 points and shooting just 34.5 percent from the floor during the past three games. His board work has remained good, though.

Pittsburgh: We seemingly touch on the Panthers in some negative manner every week. Their offense and defense has been lacking. The Panthers are shooting 39.3 percent from the field in league games, 14th in the league, but also are allowing their foes to hit 46.1 percent, which is 15th in the league. Hey, there's a reason Pitt is the only team winless in conference play.

Louisville G Peyton Siva: He remains one of the quickest players in the nation and his assist numbers are solid, but he can't score anymore. He has scored in single digits in seven games in a row, averaging 5.4 points in those contests; he hit just 35.7 percent from the field in that span and only 8.3 from beyond the arc. He averaged 9.9 points last season and is at 7.9 this season.

Good win last week

Cincinnati 70, Connecticut 67: It was the Bearcats' second big road win in a row, coming nine days after they won at Georgetown. It was the teams' only meeting of the season.

Bad loss last week

Tennessee 60, Connecticut 57: Losing to an SEC also-ran, even if it was on the road, isn't a good thing for the Huskies. The Vols' RPI is just 161st.

Numbers game

Providence is the only team in the nation with three players averaging at least 36 minutes per game. G Bryce Cotton averages a league-high 37.95 minutes, which is sixth nationally. G Vincent Council averages 37.7, which is eighth. And F LaDontae Henson averages 36.6, which is tied for 20th. In addition, G Gerard Coleman averages 34.8 minutes for the Friars, who have just seven players who average double-figure minutes.

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