Just winning won’t be enough anymore. After a 75-62 loss to DePaul on Saturday night at the Sun Dome, USF needs a lot of help from around the league, along with victories in its final three games, if it has any chance of making it to the Big East Tournament.
The Bulls (12-15, 3-10) are in 14th place in the conference with the top 12 teams making it to the tournament at Madison Square Garden in March.
The fate of USF rests on Providence and Connecticut. If the Bulls can win out their season – at Seton Hall, vs. Providence and at DePaul – and either the Friars or the Huskies lose their remaining games, USF will make its Big East Tournament debut.
“Mathematically, (we’re) still hopeful, and now it’s must-wins – all three games – if we don’t win them, we’re out,” senior Melvin Buckley said. “If we win them, we have a slim chance to be there.”
Providence plays No. 22 West Virginia and Syracuse at home and faces the Bulls and St. John’s on the road, while Connecticut hosts Louisville and Villanova and travels to Rutgers and No. 16 Georgetown.
With the Friars playing the Mountaineers on Tuesday and the Huskies playing the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday, USF may be eliminated before its next game, on Saturday at Seton Hall.
“If during the course of (the week) we look up (and) another team or two gets a seventh win, and there’s 12 teams at that point that have seven or more wins, then obviously we’ll know (we can’t make it), but until that happens, we still have a chance mathematically,” coach Robert McCullum said. “And if there are 12 teams before we play Seton Hall with seven or more wins, then you refocus your attention, and you refocus your approach: ‘Hey guys, there’s no chance we can go to New York, but we still have a chance to finish the year at .500.'”
If either Providence or Connecticut loses its midweek game, the Bulls will still be alive in the race for the 12th spot in the tournament. However, they’ll still have to win two games on the road, where they haven’t won in conference play in more than two years.
“Our starts (on the road) have to be different. We can’t come out rushing,” Buckley said. “The tale of it is turnovers – 19 turnovers (Saturday) – whenever we go on the road we turn the ball over, and we turn it over in critical times, so we can’t do that.”
After being picked to finish last in the Big East Preseason Poll, the Bulls have proven they aren’t the worst team in the conference. At this point last season, USF was still searching for its first Big East win, which didn’t come until the season finale against then-No. 20 Georgetown. If the Bulls’ chance at a tournament berth ends before they have a chance to try winning their last three games, McCullum hopes this year’s team can keep its motivation to win, like he feels last year’s team did.
“I’m cautious about comparing one team to another, but despite only winning one game last year, that was one of the things that was so special about that group,” McCullum said. “Anyone could look at those guys and could say ‘There was nothing for them to show for, (but) they played for pride. They played as if they were playing to go to the NCAA Tournament or going to New York.'”