It’s easy to look at coach Robert McCullum’s record and criticize.
But those who watch how his team performs on a daily basis know records fail to tell the whole story behind the men’s basketball team. While McCullum has gone 3-21 since joining the 16-team basketball powerhouse that is the Big East, it’s difficult to say USF has been out-coached during those losses.
For McCullum and the Bulls, Sunday was a scene far too familiar: another heartbreaking loss to a Big East opponent. However, for the first time since USF joined the conference, it was a loss at the buzzer. With Sunday’s 70-68 loss to No. 15 Marquette, the Bulls lost another game that – at least on paper – they had no business being in.
USF finished its first season in the Big East with a 1-15 record, bad enough for worst in the conference. Their only win came in the season finale against No. 20 Georgetown.
But the Bulls seem to play to the level of their competition, as they finished 1-3 against ranked opponents last year. Two of their losses, against Villanova and West Virginia, came by a total of seven points.
McCullum has compiled a record of 3-15 against ranked opponents, including back-to-back victories over Charlotte and Cincinnatti two seasons ago.
But without the recruiting ability of his conference counterparts, McCullum has still made the Bulls into a highly competitive team.
USF’s debut last season also saw an embarrassing 17-game losing streak and blowouts at the hands of DePaul, Rutgers, St. John’s and Providence.
But the players acknowledge a coach can only do so much.
“At the end of the day, there are five players on the court and (McCullum) is on the sideline,” forward Melvin Buckley said. “The coach draws up the play and the players (have to execute). We just weren’t doing that.”
The Bulls lost Solomon Jones and James Holmes, but Melvin Buckley and McHugh Mattis have shown tremendous improvements under McCullum’s guidance. One, if not both, will likely join Jones in the NBA. Kentrell Gransberry is the team’s top transfer this season and hasn’t disappointed by averaging a double-double.
The Bulls have already surpassed their win total from last season, yet fans are still upset about USF’s play against Big East opponents. After an 81-55 loss to Louisville, the team’s worst of the season, fans sent a message to Athletic Director Doug Woolard by scrawling, “We need a new men’s b-ball coach” in chalk outside the athletics building.
McCullum dubbed the next game against Cincinnati a must-win, and the team responded with an impressive 74-59 victory. The sign of a poorly coached team is a failure to perform for a coach, but the Bulls do just that.
“He really gets everything out of his players,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “They do exactly what he wants them to and that’s why they are so tough.”
The team respects McCullum and buys into his program, but has been unable to put everything together and get that one big upset.
“I have always thought he is a great coach,” Crean said. “The talent he has and the way he is putting this team together, he’s going to get it. Even going back to Conference USA, his first year there, I thought he should have been coach of the year.”
McCullum has beaten a ranked opponent each season since joining USF in 2003. At times, the Bulls had as few as six scholarship players on the team because of injuries. Against a conference that has three ranked teams and perennial powerhouses in Georgetown, Syracuse and Connecticut, it would seem USF couldn’t compete.
But on Sunday with nine players seeing action, the Bulls showed what they are capable of doing: competing with anyone in the country.
The Bulls held the Golden Eagles to 38 percent shooting from the field while hitting 52 percent of their shots.
USF may appear weak on paper, but as Marquette found, winning at the Sun Dome isn’t an easy task, especially with McCullum calling the shots.
“Everyone can’t take South Florida for granted; you can’t just come in and say it’s a gimme,” Buckley said. “You have to look at the leadership for that, and it starts with the coach.”