USF looks to right ship

It seems with every game the stakes are raised for the Bulls.

This week, it’s trying to get a win after two straight losses halted the momentum of the push toward an NCAA Tournament spot, as USF (15-9, 5-7) faces fellow bubble team Cincinnati (15-9, 6-6) at 7 tonight in the Sun Dome.

“They’re all huge,” said USF coach Stan Heath of the upcoming games. “They’re going to be that way every single time we step on the court from here on out. I still think there’s a map that we can get to where we want to be. It starts at home.”

Like the Bulls, the Bearcats are jockeying for Big East position and have little margin for error if they want to secure a spot in the Big Dance.

Senior guard Chris Howard said he’d rather face the pressure because that means every game is meaningful.

“It’s pressure, but what’s basketball without pressure?” he said. “I really go into every game feeling like we can win. I’ve been feeling that way since (I’ve been here). I just go into every game thinking I’m going to win, thinking I’m going to play well – thinking I can lead this team to a victory.”

Consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Marquette – two teams also on the bubble for a tournament bid – have dropped USF to 10th overall in the conference.

A win against Cincinnati would move the Bulls, who are 8-3 at home this season, into a tie with the Bearcats in the conference. USF lost at Cincinnati 78-70 in January.

“It seems like every game has tremendous magnitude to it,” Heath said. “The teams that we are facing right now, we are all in the same boat a little bit. We are on the outside trying to get in, but close. It is really an important stretch for us right now.”

After Cincinnati, the Bulls have a favorable stretch of games – except for a trip to Villanova on Feb. 24. USF faces St. John’s, Providence, DePaul and Connecticut – four of the last five teams in the conference standings.

“I feel like if we don’t make the NCAA Tournament, then the season is a failure,” said junior guard Dominique Jones, who’s just 9-for-38 from the field the last two games. “That’s just me saying that. I think that the team needs pressure on us. We open up new challenges for ourselves.

“We have nothing to lose because we’ve been losing (in previous years). We’ve got something to gain. We’re going out here, we’re working hard and we hope to be in the NCAA Tournament.”

The Bulls added a scorer to their lineup Saturday with the return of sophomore forward Augustus Gilchrist, who played 23 minutes, scoring seven points on 3-of-6 shooting off the bench. It was his first action after sitting out with an ankle injury that sidelined him in early December. He is averaging 17.4 points per game this season.

“I think it was a good first step for him,” Heath said. “His confidence will get better and he’ll feel stronger out there on the court. Our team has to get used to utilizing him a lot more, too.”