Early redemption

USF 74 Cincinnati 59

The mindset of the men’s basketball team before its game Sunday was that of a team trying to clinch a postseason spot – but it’s only January, still very early in the world of college basketball.

After an 81-55 loss to Louisville on Wednesday night, coach Robert McCullum immediately called Sunday’s home matchup against Cincinnati a must-win, hoping the Bulls would respond with a victory against the Bearcats, the only other winless team in the Big East.

With only two players coming off the bench and three starters playing at least 36 minutes, USF answered McCullum’s call, beating Cincinnati (9-7, 0-2) 74-59 and entering a four-way tie for 12th place in the Big East.

“We had a new mindset,” guard Chris Howard said. “We came into practice a little tougher. Guys were more focused. (McCullum) gave us a little chin-check, saying this is a must-win, so we were motivated from that to win.”

The Bulls (10-8, 1-3) lost their three previous Big East games by a combined 66 points, and a loss Sunday would’ve put them in last place in the conference before heading on the road to play consecutive games against West Virginia and No.20 Notre Dame this week.

“If you’re talking about remotely staying in the conference race and if you’re talking about realistically having a shot at making the conference tournament, I just don’t know that you could start 0-4,” McCullum said after the victory.

With Aris Williams (knee) and Melvyn Richardson (foot) out, center Kentrell Gransberry was forced to play a career-high 37 minutes, but the lack of rest didn’t slow him down.

Gransberry, a transfer from LSU, finished with his fifth double-double (21 points, 15 rebounds). Since becoming eligible 11 games ago, he has led USF in rebounding 10 times and in scoring five times.

“We told Kentrell before the game: ‘We’ve got to have a double-double out of you,'” McCullum said. “He played too many minutes (Sunday), and I’m even more amazed that his (stat) line is what it is.”

With the win, the Bulls are ahead of the pace of last year’s team, which didn’t win a conference game until the season finale against Georgetown. The other three teams that failed to make it to the Big East Tournament last season each won five conference games.

“Last year this win came in the last game of the season,” Howard said. “We tried to work harder this year than what we did last year, because last year wasn’t good enough, so to get this win out of the way is a big improvement.”

Five of the Bulls’ final 12 games are against opponents that are either ranked or receiving votes in the AP top 25 poll, and McCullum feels the win against the Bearcats put them in a good position for their road trips to Morgantown, W.Va., and South Bend, Ind.

“Anytime you’re going on the road and playing the opponents of the caliber of the two that we have coming up – I’d like to think your chances are a lot better if you’re coming off a win,” said McCullum, whose Bulls led Cincinnati by as many as 25 points. “Our guys feel a lot better about themselves after the way we played, and this wasn’t the first time we told the team it was a must-win.”