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Bulls get first shot at defending national champs

TAMPA - For the first time in the University of South Florida's 41-season men's basketball history, the Bulls will face a defending national champion. It's obviously a formidable task. It also sounds like a massive opportunity. "We're going to come out hard, play with some energy and try to get this win,'' USF senior forward Augustus Gilchrist said. "We've got a chance to put this team on the map. How big would it be? Real big.''
But USF's scenario remains familiar when the Bulls (7-6) face the No. 9-ranked Connecticut Huskies (10-1) in tonight's Big East Conference opener at the St. Pete Times Forum. Since joining the league in 2005, any type of conference victory — big, small or medium — has been challenging. The Bulls are 23-81 in six previous seasons of Big East regular-season games. "The Big East is a grind, and you have to get that message across to the newer players who haven't been through it yet,'' USF coach Stan Heath said. "Every game is a war. Preparation is key because most of the games are decided in the last two or three minutes. "You have to execute, you have to defend and you have to show great toughness if you want to win these type of games. UConn is typical UConn, so it's another challenge.'' UConn looks a little different in important places. Do-everything guard Kemba Walker took an early entry into the NBA draft. Coach Jim Calhoun will miss tonight's game — veteran assistant George Blaney moves up one spot on the bench — as he begins serving a three-game suspension for NCAA recruiting violations. Elsewhere, though, the Huskies return five key players who started games at some point last season, including celebrated sophomores Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. UConn's best newcomer is 6-foot-10, 270-pound freshman center Andre Drummond. "We're going to start seeing a lot bigger guys now that Big East play is starting,'' Gilchrist said. "We have a lot of returners, so it won't be as shocking. Everybody knows you've got to bring it every night.'' "You play teams early in the season and they have one or two good players,'' USF junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "You get to the Big East and those teams have five or six good players. When I was a freshman, it was scary. But those days are over. We believe we can play with these guys.'' It was difficult to build belief last season, when the Bulls suffered through a 23-loss season, including 15 by nine or fewer points. A similar pattern has formed this year. USF has dropped all six of its games played away from Tampa, including one four-point defeat and a pair of two-pointers. The Bulls, who already have used eight different starting lineups, are back to full strength after weathering a series of injuries and illnesses. Heath hopes to develop a quality he witnessed with the 2009-10 team, which was by far USF's most successful squad in Big East play (9-9). "We showed a lot of grit that year,'' Heath said. "We had a go-to player (Dominique Jones) obviously, but everyone stepped up and made plays. With those guys, it didn't matter if 'UConn' was across the chest or 'Georgetown' was across the chest. They didn't care. They were coming at you with confidence. "I think that's what this team needs. A big win against a terrific team like UConn would really help us to gain that confidence and grit you need in the course of a season.''


Tonight: At the Forum, 9 p.m.;

TV: BHSN, Channel 47

jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353

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