Hall of Famer Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun walked into the press room after Wednesday’s 66-53 win over the Bulls, his tie loose in a Rodney Dangerfield manner and his hair matted down.
Then he praised coach Robert McCullum and the USF program.
“Soon,” the 20-year coach said in his northern accent, “South Florida is going to be a team you don’t want to come visit.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright put forth the same sentiments on Jan. 24. Calhoun also spoke of tough times he had in the past, namely a 9-19 team in 1986.
McCullum responded by saying, “Any compliment from your peers is nice.”
Nice only gets you so far.
McCullum’s a man who usually believes, who preaches about buying in.
He’s been saying it all season and believing it the whole time.
But McCullum was in disbelief Wednesday night. In disbelief at Athletic Director Doug Woolard’s statement on how he’ll be the coach next season.
He said he always expected to be returning next year, and while the numbers probably say different, he’ll be back next year whether you like it or not.
And the same belief system will be there.
Beliefs, you hope, will get you a little further, and in McCullum’s case, he’d better hope it does.
Now he has only one more year at the very least.
He’s ready for a turnaround. He’s ready to get past that corner, to someplace where a 57-53 loss to No. 16 West Virginia doesn’t happen, nor does a 49-46 loss to No. 4 Villanova.
“I tell you what,” Calhoun continued, “this team knows defense. They can play defense. I mean, they held us to 35 percent shooting (in the game).”
That from a coach expecting his team to make it to Indianapolis later this month.
“I will tell you something I am absolutely convinced of,” McCullum said. “I am absolutely certain we can be successful in the Big East. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”
McCullum better hope there are no doubts. His beliefs better get even stronger during the summer. Road games at places most fear to go. More ranked and tournament teams on the schedule. Better players that slipped through McCullum’s recruiting.
So it begs the question: For how long will USF be taken lightly?
Will it take Dick Vitale saying the Bulls are the new darling of the Big East, or is it as simple as snapping the nation’s second-longest losing streak?
“We played the best team in the country, in my opinion, tonight,” McCullum said. “And when you deal with (players who are) 18-22 year olds, it’s going to be human nature that someone takes you for granted. Human nature is going to say, ‘They haven’t won a game in while.’ Then they jump out to an 18-0 lead and human nature kicks in.”
An 18-0 lead eight minutes into the game. McCullum’s right. Human nature is going to make Connecticut give up on a Bulls’ effort that was uglier than the USF Softball Complex on Catch 47.
But pulling within three in the second half made McCullum proud. He likes those efforts, he wants to continue to see them, he’s going to rely on the defense, and players are finally starting to realize – three years in – that their coach may just know what the hell he is talking about.
“If guys buy in like I have,” senior James Holmes said, “the corner will be turned. You can see it personally in the guys who already have.”
There were leftover players from the Seth Greenberg era that had McCullum as well. Terrence Leather. Brian Swift.
They bought it. They told me they liked McCullum much better, even though they were recruited by Greenberg. Holmes said even Jimmy Baxter has called in his support for McCullum.
So is the edge, the corner, just over the hump of every cliche I can think of?
Perhaps a small one.
Conference champions? Don’t hold your breath.
A winning record? Keep your fingers crossed.
“I think we’re very close to turning a corner,” McCullum said. “It’s going to happen next year. We’ll have a record we’re looking for.”
Instead of buying out, it’s being said all you need to do is buy in.
“I know that I had to stop, and then I had to think about it,” Holmes said. “That’s what everyone has to do. They have to come in and think about it. It’s all about buying into it.”
And this buy-in won’t cost a million dollars.