USF coach Stan Heath said he hasn’t really had time to put in perspective what his team has accomplished this season.
That’s because there’s still more work to do, as the third-seeded Bulls (20-12) start a brand new season when they host sixth-seeded N.C. State (19-15) in the first round of the NIT tonight at 8.
“We’ve just talked about creating our own tradition, creating our own history – writing different chapters and doing some special things,” Heath said Monday. “When I go to the gym, I see all these grueling banners up there for Big East teams, but I never really looked to the right. I noticed NIT banners hung up there, and I told the guys this is something to be excited about. You’ve got a chance to put a banner up there. We’d love for it to say more than just an appearance.”
The Bulls, coming off a 69-49 loss to Georgetown in the second round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday, will face a Wolfpack team that made the semifinals of the ACC conference tournament by defeating FSU and Clemson before losing by four to Georgia Tech.
The Bulls last reached the postseason in 2001-02, losing to Ball State in the first round of the NIT. Making the NIT this year wasn’t the ultimate goal before the season started but can still be a motivational tool for the future, said junior guard Dominique Jones.
“I think if we win this, people will look at us like they missed out on the South Florida team being in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “That was our goal, that was my goal individually. I hate the fact that we’re not in it, but you just have to take the cards that are given to you.”
Along with Jones, senior guard Chris Howard has been a key part in USF’s rise. Howard ranks fourth in USF history in assists for a career, while averaging a career-high 10.4 points per game this season.
Howard said despite falling short of the tournament, there’s still much to play for.
“We made the NIT, which is a step up for this program,” Howard said. “Whenever you can play for a championship, there’s excitement. The goal was to get into the NCAAs, but just to have postseason play … it’s been a great season.”
Lack of a perimeter game has been USF’s achilles heel, especially in its losses. The Bulls finished the season ranked last in the conference in 3-point shooting and shot just 1-of-19 combined in its two Big East tournament games.
USF, however, still managed to finish the regular season on a three-game winning streak and won the opening round of the Big East tournament against DePaul, its first Big East tournament win since joining the conference in 2005.
Jones, who finished second in the Big East in scoring this season with 21.3 points per game, said the Bulls must be effective from the perimeter to make a deep run in the tournament.
“We’ve never been lights out shooting, but a couple games we hit some shots,” he said. “We’ve got to make shots. It’s hard to beat big time teams just getting points in the paint.”
Despite missing the NCAA tournament, the 2010 USF basketball program has left future teams with a foundation to build on and has a chance to strengthen that foundation.
“(The NIT) gets a lot of exposure. We’ll be in a lot of households with recruits,” Heath said. “The further you go increases recruiting playing in New York. It’s just hard to look ahead because there’s several games we have to win, but it would be a huge step in our program to continue to write different chapters in our history when it comes to USF basketball.”