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Big East bragging rights?

The past, present and future of the Big East Conference will collide tonight when USF takes on the Friars of Providence.

“We’re aware that much is going to be made of the fact that we’re going to be future Big East opponents. We know Providence is good, so that’s enough motivation for us,” USF coach Robert McCullum said in a postgame press conference Saturday. “We put emphasis on ourselves. Our goal is to prepare and play as well as we can play and to try to improve on the way we played (Saturday). If we do that, then those other things will take care of themselves.”

Providence, a founding member of the Big East, will host the future of its conference in USF at 7:30 in the Dunkin Donuts Center. The Bulls (3-0) will try to stay undefeated, but so too will the Friars (2-0).

“Providence will provide the biggest challenge that we’ve had to date,” McCullum said. “This will be one of the four or five best teams that we will play all year, from a talent standpoint. They are a clear favorite among Big East teams to make it to the NCAA Tournament and rightfully so.”

The challenge will come in the form of experience and size. The Friars not only have several seniors on the team, but also possess height — only one player on the roster is under 6-foot-3, while four are 6-foot-9 or taller.

“We’ll be playing on the road against a big, strong, experienced team, so we certainly have our work cut out for us,” McCullum said. “We realize that, but that’s why you line up and play.”

Tonight will be doubly exciting for McCullum, who has an opportunity to make USF history and show his power to improve a program in only four games. If the Bulls pick up a win, McCullum will not only be the first coach in USF history to win his first four games, but also will surpass former coach Seth Greenberg’s win total on the road last season. Greenberg’s final USF team mustered a 1-11 road record in 2002-03.

The Friars were one of the founding seven members of the Big East in 1979 but have had ups-and-downs throughout the years.

The 2000-01 season was when Providence enjoyed its most success, placing second in the East Division and competing in the NCAA Tournament. Last season came close to previous glory, as the Friars secured third place in the East Division before making it to the third round of the National Invitational Tournament.

“They are coming into this season on a high after making it to the third round of the NIT, so there is a lot to build on,” McCullum said. “They finished last season strong and expectations are high.”

This will only be the second meeting between the two teams. The first meeting occurred last season on Nov. 26 when the Bulls narrowly beat the Friars 68-64. USF, however, will be guaranteed more meetings with Providence when the Bulls join the Big East in 2005.