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Bulls look to check another box with win against Houston

The Bulls could check another milestone off their list with a victory over No. 20 Houston on Wednesday night. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

When Brian Gregory was hired as coach of USF men’s basketball in March 2017, he embarked on the task of rebuilding the program which he knew — and has constantly stressed since — would not happen overnight.

Like any ongoing process, there are various boxes Gregory hopes to check off his list. Last season, it was winning 20 games and making a postseason tournament (the College Basketball Invitational) — which the Bulls eventually won.

Gregory’s Bulls checked off two more milestones recently: Beating UCF — something they hadn’t done since 2015 — and earning a Quad 1 win for the first time since the NCAA introduced the metric.

USF (11-12, 4-6) can check off yet another when it faces No. 20 Houston (19-5, 9-2) at the Yuengling Center on Wednesday. When the Bulls and Cougars tip off at 9 p.m. (TV: ESPNU | Radio: Bulls Unlimited), USF will look for its first victory against a ranked opponent since Feb. 29, 2012 (at No. 19 Louisville).

“I think that’s one that hasn’t been checked off yet — hasn’t been checked off here in a long time,” Gregory said. “But that’s another step, there’s no doubt about it. Our time is going to come, and what we have to do … is prepare ourselves for it to hopefully come on Wednesday night.

“But you’ve got to keep knocking — and we’ve done that. And eventually you’ve got to break through.”

In order to break through, there will have to be a whole lot of knocking on the proverbial door. The Cougars head to Tampa winners of seven of their last eight, including a 76-43 beatdown of Wichita State on Sunday where five players scored in double figures, propelling Houston into the top 30 of the NET rankings — making this another Quad 1 game.

But the Bulls, winners of three in a row for the first time all season, are arguably playing their best basketball since snapping a five-game losing streak.

“We’re just going to go in there and try and play with the same energy we’ve been playing with these past three games,” junior Justin Brown said. “We’re on a winning streak right now, so we’re just going to try to keep it going — keep playing with the same energy and the same intensity.”

They may have to do it without redshirt sophomore Zack Dawson though. Dawson missed Saturday’s game in Memphis due to a hamstring injury sustained during the Feb. 1 UCF game and is officially listed as questionable, according to Gregory.

With or without their third-leading scorer (8.0 points per game), the Bulls face a big challenge in a Houston team that excels on both sides.

The Cougars lead the AAC in scoring defense (61.8 points allowed) and are third in scoring offense (69.6 points scored) in conference games, respectively. They also lead the nation in rebound margin (+10). Sophomore Nate Hinton averages nearly a double-double with 10.7 points and a team-leading 9.4 rebounds while freshman Caleb Mills has hit a team-best 40 3-pointers despite only averaging 22 minutes.

“They’re so well balanced,” Gregory said. “You can’t key on one guy, and you can’t key on one specific area of the game. You have to have a really well-balanced attack, offensively and defensively, to put yourself in a position to get a big win.”

It’ll take a lot to check that next box, that’s for sure.

The key to checking it, though, is treating it like any other.

“We’re going to go into it like it’s just another game,” Brown said. “We’re not going to treat it like it’s more important than any game in the past or more important than any games in the future.”