Surprising South Florida seeks to validate 9-4 Big East record

When a panel of sports writers, TV analysts and conference officials gathered at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to put together a mock bracket this week, the Big East's two 9-4 teams were treated a bit differently.

Georgetown received a No. 3 seed in the West Region. South Florida wasn't even among the teams mentioned as an at-large contender.

South Florida coach Stan Heath understands the skepticism about his team since it hasn't notched enough marquee wins, but he doesn't agree with those who are discounting what the Bulls (16-10, 9-4) have accomplished.

They're 9-4 in a league that has put at least 10 teams in the NCAA tournament both of the past two seasons. They're ahead of the likes of Louisville, Connecticut and West Virginia in the Big East standings. And while their non-conference performance was underwhelming, they were without starting guard Anthony Collins for six games and sixth man Jawanza Poland for 11.

"I hope people understand how hard it is to win nine games in the Big East," Heath said. "Our 9-4 is legit because the Big East is the Big East. We've got some tough games in front of us, but there's never an easy game. It's a tough league."

Heath's contention is that South Florida should be squarely in the NCAA tournament hunt with a couple wins in its final five Big East teams, but the consensus among those who do mock brackets is the Bulls aren't that close. Their best non-conference win came at home against Cleveland State and the combined conference record of the Big East teams they've beaten is 27-68.

The good news for South Florida is plenty of opportunities remain for the Bulls to notch the marquee wins they need to become a more realistic NCAA tournament contender. After a tricky road game at Pittsburgh on Sunday, South Florida finishes Big East play with Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia.

"We need to win more games because 9-9 wasn't good enough two years ago," Heath said. "I haven't put a number on it. I just know the more we get, the better our chances are. I would hope if we get 10, 11, 12 wins, we should have a great chance to go, but you never know."

That South Florida fans can even consider the possibility of the program's first NCAA tournament berth in 20 years is a sign of the progress the Bulls have made this season.

Unable to replace star guard Dominique Jones,  South Florida went 3-15 in Big East play last season and won just 10 total games. The Bulls had lost 46 of 52 Big East road games prior to this season since joining the league, prompting many to suggest the program was incapable of competing in the league.

What has been the difference for South Florida in league play this season has been a stingy defense, which has surrendered the second fewest points, the second least threes and the sixth least points per possession in Big East play. The Bulls have gone back and forth between man-to-man and a variety of zones, surprising even their coach with their defensive effectiveness.

"I did not think at the beginning of the year that we would be that good a defensive team," Heath said. "I know we had some length, but I thought the zone would be our No. 1 defense. And as time went on we've become a better man team.

"Hugh Robertson is probably our best perimeter defender, and he has been able to hold some key guys to low numbers. And Ron Anderson anchors the frontcourt by marking, communicating, helping, taking charges and rebounding."

The key for South Florida to be competitive against the five quality teams remaining on its schedule is for its erratic offense to become more efficient. Part of the reason the Bulls are last in the league in scoring is because they play at such a slow tempo, but Heath also believes he can get more from leading scorer Augustus Gilchrist.

Most coaches don't enjoy talking about where their teams stand on the bubble with four weeks remaining before the start of the NCAA tournament, but Heath sees it as a sign his program is improving.

"We'll embrace being in the conversation," he said. "We know we have a lot more work to go, but for our program, our players and our fans, there is an exciting buzz about it."

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