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With a few more wins, USF could sneak into NCAA Tournament field

Published: Monday, February 20, 2012

Updated: Monday, February 20, 2012 23:02

ORACLE PHOTO/APRIL STRATEMEYER

ORACLE PHOTO/APRIL STRATEMEYER

Coach Stan Heath said he feels the Bulls belong in the national discussion after picking up their 10th Big East win of the season.

 

Is it possible that USF, a team picked to finish 14th in the Big East after a 3-13 conference record last season, is sneaking onto the bubble for the NCAA Tournament?

After a win at Pittsburgh on Sunday gave the Bulls their 10th league win, it feels like the Bulls are only a few wins shy of earning a spot in March Madness for the first time in 20 years.

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi released his updated field projections Monday, and while the Bulls didn't make the field of 68, they were listed among the first quartet of teams left out, along with North Carolina State, UCF and Oregon.

Lunardi's newest bracket features nine Big East teams, five of which are currently below the Bulls in Big East standings.

"I know USF isn't the sexy name around the country, but 10 wins in this conference is 10 wins in this conference," coach Stan Heath said after beating the Panthers. "That's a hell of a deal. ... We should be in a big discussion nationally for what our guys are doing."

While 10 Big East wins is an achievement to be proud of, the Bulls still lack a signature win that will convince the selection committee to pick USF.

USF swept all three of its home-and-home partners — Villanova, Providence and Pittsburgh — but that trio is a combined 10-34 in the conference this season.

The highest-placed team that USF has beaten this season is Seton Hall, 9th in the league and projected as a No. 13 seed in Lunardi's bracket.

Beyond that, the best win on USF's schedule is a 70-55 win over the Horizon League's Cleveland State on Dec. 19. While the Vikings have established a respectable mid-major program, it seems unlikely that a Big East team would be placed in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of beating a mid-major.

A bigger problem than a lack of quality wins, USF also has bad losses on its resume to Penn State and Auburn, as well as losses to mid-majors Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion.

Those losses came early in the season, when Heath was still struggling with depth due to injuries. Point guard Anthony Collins missed the losses to Old Dominion and Penn State, while dynamic wing player Jawanza Poland missed all four.

If USF can finish strong in the conference, the selection committee may be willing to overlook those losses due to personnel issues.

USF is beating the lower-level Big East teams, but has been overwhelmed against the upper echelon in losses at No. 20 Notre Dame, No. 10 Marquette and No. 9 Georgetown by 11, 20 and 30 points, respectively.

The Bulls get another shot against the nation's elite when they face No. 2 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Wednesday.

At 17-10 on the season, USF is being mentioned as a potential candidate, but to feel comfortable in their odds of being selected, the Bulls likely need three or more wins from their remaining four regular season games, plus the Big East Tournament.

Before the regular season ends, USF has three litmus test games against mid-level Big East teams that can make or break the Bulls' hopes for an NCAA bid. The Bulls host Cincinnati and West Virginia on either side of a trip to No. 17 Louisville.

If USF can secure three more wins, including at least one in the Big East Tournament, Selection Sunday could come with drama for the first time in a very long time.

After years of futility, all Bulls fans can ask for is a seat on the tournament bubble.

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