For the first time in program history, USF men’s basketball is one of only a handful teams still standing toward the end of the season.
After a dominant defensive performance where USF forced 20 turnovers Monday night against Utah Valley, the Bulls take on Loyola-Marymount on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Yuengling Center in the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
USF (21-13) is not only looking to tie its program record for single-season victories but will also look to go to the championship round of a postseason tournament for the first time ever. In fact, the Bulls are making their first “final four” appearance in any tournament at all.
Of the 351 programs in Division I, USF is just one of the 30 left standing between the NCAA, NIT, CBI and CIT tournaments. That’s no small accomplishment for a team that struggled to win 10 games last season.
“It’s rewarding,” coach Brian Gregory said. “If 24 months ago, you would say that, ‘On March 27th, we’d be practicing and getting ready for a game and playing a game,’ I’m not sure anybody would have believed me. I’m not sure I would have believed myself.
“But we’ve made great strides. We really have … And the credit goes to our players because they’ve believed in it.”
If the Bulls are to remain practicing and playing into April, they will have to knock off another team that has greatly improved from last season. During the 2017-18 season, Loyola-Marymount went 11-22. This season, its record has been reversed at 22-11.
Leading the way for the Lions in their bounce-back season is senior guard James Batemon and junior center Mattias Markusson.
Batemon leads the team in scoring, assists, steals and minutes played, and could fit right in if he were in USF’s conference, according to Gregory.
“He’s a typical AAC guard when you look at the guards in this league,” Gregory said. “From our two guys — [David] Collins and [Laquincy] Rideau — to [Temple’s] Shizz Alston. He’s a little bigger and stronger — maybe doesn’t shoot as well from the 3 as Shizz, but he gets into the lane every bit as well.
“We have to do a great job on him because he’s not only a guy who can score, but he creates so many problems because of his penetration.”
Markusson, at 7 foot 3 inches, is an offensive and defensive threat who leads the team in rebounds and trails only Batemon in scoring.
Loyola-Marymount is also led by someone with NBA experience — coach Mike Dunlap.
“Mike does a great job,” Gregory said. “Won a national championship when he was at Metro State (Division II — Denver), was an NBA head coach for the Charlotte Hornets. So he’s got great experience and those guys are well-coached, they know how to play.”
The winner of Thursday’s game moves on to the championship round of the CBI to face the winner of Coastal Carolina vs. DePaul in a best-of-three series played at a host site to be determined April 1, 3 and 5.
While such an accomplishment isn’t the end goal for USF, it, and everything that came before it in this tournament, is a nice place to start.
“We have goals and aspirations for more than what we’re achieving right now,” Gregory said. “But, as I always talk about, there has to be a process and progress. And this is a very, very good step for us.
“Any type of experience that you go through in playing in the postseason, where if you lose, you’re done, or now, if you’re playing one game to get into a championship series — you can talk about it, you can show film on it, but unless you live through it, there’s nothing like it.”