That was the sound of South Florida’s bubble bursting.
Memphis all but officially ended the Bulls’ at-large NCAA Tournament hopes after the Tigers’ 71-59 victory at the Sun Dome Wednesday night. Both teams were considered “bubble teams” for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but it was the Tigers who inserted a sewing needle into the Bulls’ hopes of reaching the Big Dance with their heart-removing second half.
USF closed the first half with an inspired 9-0 run featuring two momentum-swinging plays. Mike Bernard’s block triggered a driving Marlyn Bryant layup in which the freshman guard zipped downcourt, splitting two defenders. Altron Jackson grabbed the rebound on the next possession and found a streaking Reggie Kohn, who left the ball for Will McDonald for a crowd-igniting dunk at the buzzer to tie the game at 36.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same for coach Seth Greenberg and the Bulls.
Same old story
The Memphis game proved to be a poignant microcosm of Greenberg’s teams the past couple of seasons. Just when they seem to have things under control, a late collapse sends things into a tailspin.
The Bulls were 16-9 two seasons ago and in position to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. But USF crumbled down the stretch, losing five of six including its last four. Last season USF was a preseason NCAA Tournament favorite, but after losing four of five to close the year, the Bulls ended up watching the Big Dance on television.
Wednesday night the Bulls held a 48-46 lead midway through the second half in easily the most important game of the year. But a 19-0 Memphis run left Greenberg shaking his head and fans feeling like they were watching the movie Groundhog Day.
Oh sure, Greenberg will tell you about the Bulls early-season wins against Pittsburgh and Cal, but teams are remembered for how they finish, not how they start. USF hasn’t beaten a quality opponent since defeating the Bears Dec.1, while Pitt has now ascended to No. 10 and Cal is a lock for the NCAAs.
The Memphis game was a chance for the Bulls to right the ship. A win would have kept them in contention for the National Division title and alive in the race to return to the elusive March Madness for the first time in a decade.
Everything was in place.
Memphis was reeling from three straight losses. All-Conference USA center Kelly Wise was hobbled with a strained knee that had kept him out of two of those three games. It was broadcast on national television. Memphis big men Chris Massie and Earl Barron both got in early foul trouble. There were 7,000 plus rabid Bulls fans at the Sun Dome, full from the free barbecue outside but hungry to see their team win a big game for a change. Yet with all these things working in their favor, South Florida folded like an accordion.
Greenberg, obviously feeling the frustration of another late-season landslide, asked me the other day what I would do if I were the coach since I was so full of opinions. I thought about all the possible solutions and realized after the Memphis game I had no tangible answer.
You can’t teach heart.
- Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com