Finally over the hump at home

Win every game at home. Split the remaining games on the road.

A good concept for the men’s basketball program, but how realistic is that kind of thinking for this year’s team? The Bulls are winless on the road in the Big East and 1-1 at home, meaning USF will need to win every home game to have a shot at a berth in the Big East tournament.

With a 62-40 home victory over Rutgers on Wednesday night, the Bulls have protected home court for now. With two ranked opponents – No. 15 Marquette and No. 22 Notre Dame – next on the schedule, the Bulls have a big test ahead of them.

“We need to win our home games – it’s just that point blank. There’s no better formula,” coach Robert McCullum said. “When you are in a league as deep as ours, there is no night off. For where we are, if we can get two of these three that would be a great plus for us.”

Even though the Bulls had a convincing victory over Rutgers, there’s little consolation in the win. Rutgers now sits alone in the basement of the Big East and is a team USF should handle with ease – especially at home – if they plan on making a run to the Big East tournament.

The talent assembled this season has what it takes to capture a berth in the Big East tournament. The major challenge for this team is to solve its struggles on the road in conference play. In the Big East this season, the home teams have a record of 31-17, which adds to the pressure on the road for USF.

“On the road in the Big East, it’s tough to win,” forward Melvin Buckley said. “Everybody is getting beat when they go on the road, so it puts in a situation to get some big wins at home and then steal a couple of games on the road.”

Guard Jesus Verdejo had a breakout game against Rutgers, scoring 10 points including shooting 4-for-6 from the field. Along with Melvin Buckley, McHugh Mattis and Kentrell Gransberry, the Bulls have a lineup that can be competitive in the Big East.

“Coach (McCullum) came up to me and asked me if I was ready to start and I say, ‘yes’ and took that as a challenge,” Verdejo said. “I was focused on playing defense and being aggressive. I wasn’t worried about scoring; scoring is going to come when I play defense.”

With four more road games left on the schedule, the Bulls need to win at least two road games. The matchup with Louisville at Freedom Hall is a game that could easily be put in the loss column for USF.

The Bulls, however, have winnable games on the road at St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul. It’s very possible that the Bulls could finish 3-1 in their final four road games and capture the last spot in the Big East tournament.

“It’s difficult for coaches to look at games and matchups the way the media does because different things mean so much when playing in this league,” McCullum said. “I think we just need to play games one at a time and not approach a team that is in the bottom half of the league differently.”

With guard Chris Howard’s contributions after returning from a knee injury, along with Amu Saaka and Solomon Bozeman off the bench, the Bulls could be a scary team to play. The key to a run toward a Big East tournament berth is consistent play to end the season.

“With these guys stepping up, it takes pressure off of me and Kentrell (Gransberry),” Buckley said. “Instead of teams double-teaming me, they have to be worried about Jesus or Solomon driving the lane, and that softens the defense.”

USF also needs to get a quality victory in conference play, whether that is on the road or at home.

Syracuse always has a top team in the conference and is sitting in the No. 2 spot. A victory over Syracuse, which is at home on Feb. 14, would give USF a quality win and a confidence boost that could carry them through the end of the season.

Taking care of business at home is the key for a run at a tournament berth. If the Bulls struggle at home they have on the road, they will be on the couch watching the Big East tournament for a second consecutive season.

This team has improved too much not be playing in March.

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