USF coach Stan Heath doesn’t have to worry about NCAA tournament talk anymore.
Well, at least not at the moment.
In a high-risk, low-reward game, the Bulls took a giant step back in their quest to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992, ending a four-game home win streak at the Sun Dome with a 74-58 loss to St. John’s on Saturday.
“It’s a fine line because I want them to have enthusiasm and be excited about where they are, but you can’t get caught up in the media,” Heath said of the NCAA tournament. “It’s a moving target. It changes daily. It’s something where we just have to take care of business and see where our chips lie at the end.”
St. Johns (15-11, 5-9), who entered the game third from last in the conference standings, has won three of its last four. The Bulls (16-10, 6-8), who were trying to reach .500 in the conference, drop to a four-way tie for ninth place, joining Connecticut, Notre Dame and Seton Hall at 6-8.
Junior guard Dominique Jones and senior guard Mike Mercer each had 17 points, though the Bulls shot just 23 percent from 3-point range. The Red Storm shot 59 percent from the field.
“This game kind of speaks to our league a little bit,” Heath said. “There’s still good teams even though records don’t necessarily show it. (St. John’s) didn’t look very good against Seton Hall the other day and responded. We have to make sure we respond to the setback.”
USF needs to improve in the post, Heath said, after watching his two starting forwards combine for five points on 2-of-10 shooting.
“(St. John’s) took it to us a little bit,” he said. “We didn’t finish around the basket, they out rebounded us pretty good – they were pretty physical. We’ve got to help our guys understand how they can be more productive, more effective out there on the court.”
After the Red Storm went up 41-26 early in the second half, the Bulls went on a 13-2 run to cut the lead to 43-39 with a transition layup by Mercer.
But that’s as close as the Bulls would get, as St. John’s used a 9-2 run to push the lead back to 11 at the 7:30 mark. USF mustered just three field goals in the remaining 6:09.
“They played a great game. They were the better team (Saturday),” said Mercer, who was 7-of-9 from the field. “We just didn’t come with it. Last game, we came with the defensive mindset just to lock our man down. Everyone has to look in the mirror. I personally take blame because I didn’t come with the defensive intensity.”
USF has home games left against Providence and Connecticut and road games against DePaul and No. 3 Villanova. The Bulls travel to Villanova on Wednesday, where Heath said his team won’t have to put any extra pressure on itself by winning for postseason purposes.
“They don’t have to worry about anything right now,” Heath said. “(The loss) probably took us out of the equation. We can work ourselves back in but we won’t have to worry about that bubble-talk.”