Playing with the big boys

In college basketball, coaches have two schools of thought regarding scheduling.

Some, such as former Louisville coach Denny Crum, are noted for opting to take the low road, choosing soft, out of conference schedules to boost their team’s overall record come tournament time. Some, such as Temple’s John Chaney, prefer to take the high road and play tough non-conference slates, so when March Madness comes around, their team has the experience of having – no pun intended – duked it out with some of college basketball’s heavyweights.

South Florida coach Seth Greenberg has chosen the latter.While the Bulls may not be tipping off with the Blue Devils this season, they will be embarking on possibly the most ambitious schedule in school history.

“We could have scheduled ourselves 20 wins this year, but we decided to play Florida, Florida State, Cal, Syracuse and Fordham,” Greenberg said. “But there’s nothing better than a challenge. We’re hoping that if we have success in our non-conference schedule, that we’ll put ourselves in position to catch the eye of the (NCAA Tournament) selection committee.”

The Bulls schedule is filled with potential landmines – or possible stepping stones to national prominence, depending on the outcomes. If the Bulls have serious intentions of dancing in March, they will have to carefully navigate their way in order to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Here is a look at a few dates to mark down on your basketball calendar.Fordham at the Sun Dome Nov. 19

What, Fordham you say? Hey, it’s the first game of the season and despite finishing 12-17 last season, the Rams are no powder puff. Fordham won six of its first seven games last season, including a 81-72 victory against USF, and it appeared the Rams would be a solid Atlantic 10 squad. But former Orlando Magic coach Bob Hill’s team folded like an accordion down the stretch losing 11 of their last 12 games. Fordham returns three starters from last year and will be a good test for the Bulls in the season-opener.

California at the Sun Dome Dec. 1

The Bulls open the month with their first major test of the year. USF was neck and neck with the Bears last season at Cal, until Sean Lampley took over in the final six minutes to put the Bulls away. Lampley is gone, but the Bears return four starters to a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year.

Florida at the Sun Dome Dec. 8

This one’s gonna be a dandy. The Bulls have always been looked down upon by the Gators and they know it – and don’t like it. The Sun Dome should be packed, and a win would give USF some much needed national respect. Florida is possibly the best team on USF’s schedule, and the Bulls will have to bring their “A” game in order to pull off this upset.

Syracuse at the Carrier Dome Dec. 20

The Bulls get nearly two weeks off after the Gator game, but their next test will be an Orangemen club that reached the second round of the NCAAs last year. Syracuse is a rugged Big East team led by one of the most underrated guards in the country, Preston Shumpert. Much of the Bulls’ chances against Syracuse depend on how they fare against Florida. A win against the Gators could give USF the confidence needed to travel to upstate New York and return with a win in the Bulls last true test before conference play begins.

Memphis at The Pyramid Jan. 15 and at the Sun Dome Feb. 20

In his first season with the Tigers, coach John Calipari led Memphis to a 21-15 record and a trip to the NIT semifinals. But Calipari saved his best for the recruiting trail, signing what The Sporting News called the fourth best freshmen class in the nation. Calipari’s biggest catch was McDonald’s and Parade All-American Dajuan Wagner, who hung 100 points on some unsuspecting team last year as a senior at Camden High School. But the athletic and explosive Wagner might not even be the Bulls’ biggest concern. Kelly Wise was the only C-USA player to average a double-double (15.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and is on the conference’s preseason All-League team. Combine the pair with center Earl Barron (8.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and guard Scooter McFadgon (9.3 ppg) and it’s clear why the coaches tabbed the Tigers as the preseason favorite to win the C-USA crown.

Cincinnati at the Sun Dome Center Jan. 26Despite conference coaches choosing Memphis to win the C-USA title, Greenberg said his vote went to Cincinnati. Despite losing Kenny Satterfield to the NBA, the Bearcats return last season’s C-USA Player of the Year Steve Logan, who averaged 17.6 ppg for coach Bob Huggins’ squad. To boot, the Bulls haven’t beaten Cincinnati in 10 years, justifying Greenberg’s choice of preseason champ.

Louisville at Freedom Hall Feb. 1

As far as national exposure goes, the Bulls matchup with Louisville could be huge. The game falls smack dab in the middle of the conference schedule and will be on ESPN. If both teams are doing well, a victory at home on national television could be invaluable come tournament time. First-year coach Rick Pitino brings with him a top-notch recruiting class, rated fifth in the country by The Sporting News and led by McDonald’s All-American Carlos Hurt.

  • Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at