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USF Bulls’ high expectations become March Sadness

TAMPA - March Sadness. Barring one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in college basketball history – five victories in five days – that sensation will await the University of South Florida Bulls when their run is completed at the Big East Conference tournament. The No. 13-seeded Bulls (12-18, 3-15) open the tournament tonight at Madison Square Garden against the No. 12 Seton Hall Pirates (14-17, 3-15) and would love to avoid being the first team sent home. It’s so much different than last season.
“Getting to the NCAA tournament, there’s nothing like that,’’ USF senior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. “Once you’ve done that, anything else doesn’t measure up.’’ Last season, the Bulls tied a school record with 22 victories and went 12-6 in the Big East. Stan Heath was picked by his peers as the conference’s coach of the year. The Bulls set a single-season conference record for defense, allowing just 56.6 points per game. USF earned its first NCAA at-large bid in 20 years and fell one victory short of the Sweet 16. With five key players returning, the Bulls were picked eighth in the league’s preseason poll. Before the season, pointing to the renovated Sun Dome and the program’s sudden momentum, Heath said the Bulls were capable of a Big East championship. So what happened? Lots of things, actually. * No true post presence – Junior-college All-American Waverly Austin, a 6-foot-11, 270-pound center, was going to start for USF. But three days before fall classes began, Austin was declared ineligible. He promptly enrolled at Oregon, where he comes off the bench for the NCAA tournament-bound Ducks. Fitzpatrick and Victor Rudd were forced out of their natural positions. USF was outrebounded in 12 of 18 Big East games. The Bulls missed the inside savvy of Augustus Gilchrist, plus the toughness/leadership package of Ron Anderson Jr., both of whom were seniors last season. Anderson plays for an NBA developmental league team. “Ron Anderson really patrolled the middle and communicated well,’’ Heath said. “He was back with us during the all-star break and worked out. What a difference he made. You could just tell. So, if we had him or somebody (similar), we would’ve been so much more effective.” USF also lost Hugh Robertson, a senior last season. “He was our best defender,” Heath said. “Our opponents wouldn’t have been getting those looks because Hugh would’ve just taken them out (of the game).” * Injuries – Before the season, Heath raved about the defensive improvement of Shaun Noriega, a zone-busting shooter and the team’s best 3-point threat. Indeed, Noriega displayed some early flashes with four double-figure scoring performances in the first eight games. Then he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. At first, no one knew its severity. But it lingered. Pretty soon, any shot at recovery seemed pointless. Noriega, who missed the last 22 games, is expected back next season on a medical redshirt. “Having him this season would’ve really helped,’’ Heath said. “His shooting takes the pressure off.’’ Meanwhile, promising sophomore guard Musa Abdul-Aleem, expected to provide physical play to the backcourt, only played in nine games due to foot and back injuries. Sophomore point guard Anthony Collins entered the season with a calf injury and was never 100 percent. In all, USF utilized 15 different starting lineups. * Complacency – USF players claim that even in the season’s worst moments, such as the 10-game losing streak in Big East play, no one quit. But something was missing. “Maybe we didn’t handle success real well,’’ Heath said. When USF was thrashed by Syracuse in its Big East opener, several players pointed to last season, when the Bulls opened with a defeat against Connecticut, suggesting that better play could be turned on quickly. “I don’t think we laid back, thinking it was going to just happen magically, but things started mounting up and it became tougher (to recover),’’ Fitzpatrick said. USF was the kind of team that had more ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 highlights than victories. Rudd’s reel of highlight dunks might be the nation’s best. And every time it seemed that USF wasn’t half-bad, its fast finish or great start was offset by long offensive droughts. USF will quickly move on, looking to next season’s reconfigured league, which will be without powers Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, while adding NCAA-level teams such as Memphis and Temple. The Bulls will retool themselves with a six-player recruiting class, including top 100-rated frontcourt players John Egbunu and Chris Perry. “The future is bright here,’’ Heath said. Even amid adversity, there were moments when USF sparkled, such as the 61-58 home victory against co-league champion Georgetown on Jan. 19. Or the final stretch, which included victories against DePaul and Connecticut, followed by a heartbreaking overtime defeat at Cincinnati. Last season, there was a much bigger prize ahead. Now, the Bulls head to New York just trying to survive and avoid the one-and-done cameo. No NCAA. No NIT. Nothing but March Sadness. No one was expecting that.

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