Tournament talk heats up

There’s no denying it. The USF men’s basketball team is having one of its most successful seasons in quite some time.

In his third year, coach Stan Heath has the Bulls sitting at 5-6 in the Big East – USF’s best start since joining the conference in 2005. The Bulls had marquee wins against then-No. 17 Pittsburgh and then-No. 8 Georgetown over a span of four days last week.

But the final icing on the cake this season would be a trip to the NCAA Tournament – a place USF hasn’t been since 1992. With an RPI of 49 and strength of schedule of 37, the Bulls are right in the hunt despite a 65-62 loss at Notre Dame on Sunday.

In’s latest bracketology analysis, expert Joe Lunardi lists USF as one of his “first four out” of the tournament. Marquette and Cincinnati – USF’s next two opponents – are also in Lunardi’s “first four out,” as is Notre Dame.

The Bulls (15-8, 5-6) travel to Marquette on Saturday and face Cincinnati on Tuesday at home. With USF losing to the Bearcats earlier this year, it almost sets up a bubble-type elimination game, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach wrote Monday.

“The Bulls were the Big East’s hottest team before losing at Notre Dame 65-62 on Sunday,” he wrote. “Before that, South Florida did more than enough to at least bring a decent argument to the NCAA Tournament selection committee … South Florida could really use a sweep of its next two games.”

Schlabach thinks USF’s non-conference schedule has resulted in pressure to win the upcoming games against teams also fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.

“The Bulls don’t have much to show from their (non-conference) schedule (wins over Virginia and Kent State), so they’ll have to do a lot more during Big East play,” Schlabach wrote.

USF could get a big lift this weekend if sophomore Gus Gilchrist, who hasn’t played since December because of a high ankle sprain, takes the court as Heath expects. Though there’s still plenty of work left, Heath said last week he expects his team to continue making a strong case for tournament consideration.

“(March Madness) is right around the corner,” Heath said Friday before USF’s 65-62 loss to Notre Dame. “We’re in the mix and we’re not quite there yet, but we are trying to get in the mix of being one of those teams. You have to win to get there.”