NASHVILLE, Tenn. Players play, tough players win.
The acronym of that phrase is inscribed on Stan Heaths championship ring from when he served as an assistant coach on the 2000 Michigan State team that won a national title.
Its a phrase that means a lot to Heath, now in his fifth year as USFs head coach, and has helped his team get further in the NCAA Tournament than ever before, as they meet Ohio tonight at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in the third round with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
The ingredient Im looking for (when building a team) is toughness and guys who are tough, guys who are competitive, guys who want to win, he said. Theyre going to do the things necessary, the hard work, the intangible things, the dirty work necessary to win.
With toughness aplenty, Heaths Bulls are playing as one of the best defensive units in the country, holding Temple to just 44 points in their 58-44 second round win. The Owls previous low this season was 63 points. Just twice in their past eight games have they allowed an opponent to reach 56 points or more 56 to Big East regular season champion Syracuse in the Carrier Dome and 57 to Notre Dame in an overtime loss.
You want to see toughness? Look in the paint where the big bodies of Augustus Gilchrist, Ron Anderson Jr. and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick have bullied their opponents frontlines, outrebounding 22 of 35 teams theyve played this season.
Need another example? See USFs freshman point guard Anthony Collins. Standing at 6-foot-1, Collins is usually the smallest player on the court. Collins uses his stature to his advantage though, crouching down in traffic and dribbling only between the floor and his knees where no defender can get the ball without fouling. Temples Juan Fernandez was forced to play severely limited minutes Friday night because he was in foul trouble from guarding Collins.
The Bulls play any ugly style, but they have fun doing it and theyve been too successful to consider changing anything.
After a first-half against the Owls in which the Bulls shot 11.1 percent from the field (3-of-27) and missed 22 consecutive shots, most would have expected Heath to lay into his team in the locker room for such a poor performance.
Thats not his style, though.
Instead, he told the team they would never play worse even though they only trailed by four points, 19-15. He told them to have fun and enjoy the moment and it worked, with the Bulls dominated the second half and cruising to a relatively comfortable win.
I think that right now, were just enjoying the moment, Anderson said. This is the first time weve been here. So, when the coach says, Just have fun, everyone says that and understands that these times, these moments in our lives, they dont come very often.
Anderson, the emotional leader of the team, knows that this years success can mean something much bigger for the program for years to come.
Ive been saying it all year, he said. What were doing is bigger than us. Its for the University, its for the fans and the alums and we can tell they appreciate what were doing because theyre letting us know.
With nothing to lose and a defense to brag about, the Bulls will hit the court again to face Mid-American Conference Champion Ohio at 7:10 p.m. live on TBS.
With another win, the Bulls move on to the Midwest Regional in St. Louis next week and get one step closer to earning another ring for Heath to carve PPTPW into.