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Bulls rely on defense

While the USF men’s basketball team has struggled on offense all season, the Bulls are learning to do things on defense.

Using strong defense, USF has pulled off surprising wins in the Big East this season, and the Bulls will look for the same effort when they face Seton Hall (14-12, 5-9) at 7 p.m. in Newark, N.J.

“We’re all on the same page defensively,” said USF junior guard Chris Howard. “It falls on (sophomore guard) Dominique Jones’ shoulders, and it falls on my shoulders to make sure the effort is there.”

The effort has been there lately. Despite ranking last in the conference with 59.8 points per game on offense, the Bulls are sixth in the Big East in scoring defense, holding their opponents to 65 points per game.

In the last three games, USF (8-18, 3-11) has held its opponents to less than 70 points, including 64 against No. 1 Connecticut.

“After the (UConn) game, (Huskies coach) Jim Calhoun came over to me and said ‘coach to be honest with you, you guys do a great job defensively,’ and that meant a lot to me,” said USF coach Stan Heath. “We’re fighting pretty hard out there.”

Heath said his focus remains on improving the team’s offense.

“Really, except for maybe a couple games, we’ve been able to hang around and fight in games,” he said. “It comes down to us being able to improve our shooting skills.”

Jones, who leads the team with 18 points per game, is one point shy of 1,000 in his career. When he breaks the record tonight, he will be the third player in school history to reach 1,000 career points, and the second-fastest to do it. The 6-foot-4 guard will set the mark in his 58th career game. Tony Grier reached 1,000 in 51 games during the 1980-81 season.

“I think from an individual standpoint, what he (Jones) brings to our program, it’s a huge step,” Heath said. “I’m more into team goals and winning and things that represent USF, but a part of that is having talented players.”

Heath is awaiting the status of  another important player. Senior guard Jesus Verdejo, who sat out of the Connecticut loss, is struggling with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Heath said Verdejo should be able to play, though.

“Our team continues to fight, to compete as hard as we can, and we’re trying to spend extra time on different areas,” he said. “We have guys coming in the mornings to shoot free-throws and extra shots. I feel we can really improve in that area down the stretch.”