USF basketball's true test starts tonight
The South Florida Bulls open Big East Conference play tonight against an unranked Louisville team that experienced a tumultuous offseason due to off-the-court trouble for Coach Rick Pitino, whose job was made even more difficult than expected after the loss of several key players from last season's 31-win team. With 10 wins in their first 12 games, the Bulls are off to their best start in 18 years, the last time they started a season 10-2. That season, USF made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament for just the second - and last - time in school history. Still, despite its strong nonconference record, USF likely will have to play near flawlessly tonight to exit Freedom Hall with a victory. "The Big East is a beast," USF coach Stan Heath said. "There are no easy nights."Now in his third season, Heath inherited a program that joined the Big East two seasons prior to his arrival. Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette also joined in the summer of 2005, boosting an already-strong conference to 18 teams loaded with tradition. How strong of a basketball conference is the Big East? Every program in the league has appeared in the Final Four at least once except USF. Even Rutgers, the program closest to USF in terms of performance in recent years, has a rich history thanks to its 1976 trip to the Final Four. Rutgers was led by Mike Dabney, better known as the father of UConn women's star Maya Moore. No program in the Big East has a richer history than Louisville, which has won two national titles and made eight trips to the Final Four. When the Cardinals joined, Pitino called the Big East "maybe the strongest conference in the history of college basketball from a depth standpoint." In the five seasons of the current alignment, the Big East has delivered, sending Villanova and Connecticut to the Final Four a season ago. As conference play opens this week, all 18 teams own winning records, and five programs are ranked, led by No. 5 Syracuse. Whether this season ends up a success for the Bulls will largely be determined during the next 18 games. If they can somehow flirt with .500 in league play, the program's first postseason berth in eight years is likely on the horizon. If they crumble - the Bulls have lost 57 of 68 Big East games in four seasons - then the fast start will fade into just another distant memory. Former USF coach Robert McCullum once said this about the Bulls joining the Big East: "I'm getting tired of people making comments like, 'We really sympathize with you.' I don't think they mean any harm. I know how big of a challenge it is and am looking forward to the challenge because of the opportunity it presents." McCullum was out of a job after two disastrous years in the Big East.
Reporter Scott Carter can be reached at (813) 731-8135.