For the first time in program history, USF men’s basketball will play games in April.
The Bulls play for the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) championship starting Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Yuengling Center against former Conference USA and Big East opponent DePaul. Monday’s game will be Game 1 in a best-of-three series.
“It feels great. It really does,” coach Brian Gregory said. “I’m happy for our guys, they’ve put in a lot of work. This is a great reward for them, to be able to continue to play, get a few more days of practice in, preparation, keep getting better. To play a Big East opponent for this is great as well.”
To reiterate — after only winning 10 games last season, USF (22-13, 8-10 AAC) is still playing as the calendar filips to April, which is something only 13 other Division I programs can also say.
“People have talked about that. That is unique, obviously,” Gregory said. “You have to win games in order to do that. So, to our guys’ credit, they’ve been able to continue to win and continue to improve, which I think is really, really important. We finished the month of March over .500 — I think every month during the season, we’ve been able to do that — so we’re hoping to be able to do the same thing in April.”
In order to finish April above .500, the Bulls will have to get past a tough opponent in DePaul (18-15, 7-11 Big East).
“Great length around the baskets, so that helps them defensively,” Gregory said. “Good size. They’re grown men. You don’t go through the Big East without being able to go through battles and tough games and different things like that. Their ability to score on the perimeter and make shots is off the charts, so our defense is going to be tested, our physicality is going to be tested.”
One of those “grown men” is senior guard Max Strus, who finished conference play third in the Big East in scoring at 18.86 points per game. Strus has since increased that average to 20 points per game thanks to the CBI, though the Big East appears to not recognize those stats.
But it’s not just Strus the Bulls have to worry about.
“They have three of the top-20 scorers in the Big East,” Gregory said. “Femi [Olujobi], inside, is really, really talented. [Eli] Cain, at the guard spot, another big, strong, physical guard.”
The championship round also presents a unique situation, because unlike pretty much every other college basketball tournament, the CBI’s championship is not one-and-done. The champion will have to win twice.
“One of the calls I’m going to make … is to Billy [Mohl], our baseball coach,” Gregory said. “Because they go those weekend series — the mental approach to that. Because as a college basketball coach, I’ve never done that. It’s different, there’s no doubt about it.”
If USF can pull off the series victory, to use a baseball term, the Bulls would take home their first postseason tournament championship in almost 30 years, when they won the Sun Belt conference tournament.
It’d also be a punctuation mark on a season that has drastically turned what was once a down-and-out program into a contender.
“Culture is built every single day and it’s built by the beliefs and the behaviors of your players,” Gregory said. “We can have logos and symbols and slogans up on the wall — that doesn’t do it. It’s how our guys live, what they believe in and how they go about doing their daily life in a disciplined fashion. When you have tangible evidence it’s working, it obviously always helps.”
All three games will be televised on ESPNU. Game 2 on Wednesday and, if necessary, Game 3 on Friday, will be played in Chicago at DePaul’s home arena, Wintrust Arena.