USF 65, C. Florida 56. Flipped!

USA TODAY Sports

Big East play begins Sunday. Can the Bulls compete?

I didn't go to Orlando for last night's USF vs. C. Florida game for a bunch of reasons, one of which is a desire to spend as little time in Oviedo, Florida as possible since I left high school. But another is that the first USF vs. C. Florida tilt this season, the one that opened the revamped Sun Dome, indicated that a two-hour drive (with traffic) would be a bad idea. After watching Isaiah Sykes & Keith Clanton roll through the Bulls seven weeks ago, when USF was healthier than they are now, it certainly looked like the Bulls would fall yet again. Our boys were outrebounded 45-26 that night, Sykes and Clanton combined for 42 points and 27 rebounds, and those stats were only limited by C. Florida's mercy.

The Bulls got killed in the paint that night on both ends of the floor, and seemed to have no answers forthcoming anytime soon. So with the Knights ineligible for the postseason, this became as exciting a game as C. Florida would have in 2012-13. They would be fired up, and USF was without Kore White, Shaun Noriega, and had a dinged Anthony Collins. All the signs on paper made it look like another beatdown was in the offing.

Boy was I wrong.

USF played as well last night as they have all season, flipping their previous loss with a 65-56 win via a combination of toughness, heart, character, and stifling defense. Strapping the Knights into the dentist chair from last March, they grinded out a tough road win by drawing even on the glass (C. Florida had 29 rebounds, USF 28) and defending the perimeter much more effectively (the Knights were 4-22 from three-point range). The Bulls also were outstanding protecting possessions, with just six turnovers for a season low.

It was puzzling to see Donnie Jones not order the ball thrown into the post for Keith Clanton on every C. Florida possession. Credit the Bulls defense to an extent, but Clanton only getting 10 shot attempts is borderline malpractice by the Knights. The Bulls had only seven scholarship players available, and foul trouble was a huge concern. Big props to Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Martino Brock for not getting disqualified while picking up four fouls, but the Knights failed to take advantage of the short bench situation all night.

Jawanza Poland loves the sight of those black and gold uniforms, following up a 22 point night vs. the Knights in November with 18 points on 8-14 shooting last night. Victor Rudd's double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds was highlighted by an alley-oop that you can catch on SportsCenter this morning. A consistent Rudd might be the difference for USF as Big East play starts. He can be oft-maddening and inconsistent, but if can transform into a stable double-double guy, it might be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful Big East slate.

The other key might be Anthony Collins' ability to finish at the rim, as his 4-9 from the floor last night came exclusively on shots within a few feet of the cup. The little jump floaters and twisting runners that got the Bulls two NCAA wins last year haven't been falling so far this year, and his efficiency is down despite scoring 1.2 more points per game over last season (true shooting % last year 58.7, this year 50.4). Former Bulls point guard Anddrikk Frazier made a good point on Twitter that not having Ron Anderson Jr. & Gus Gilchrist to seal defenders around the rim is a big part of the reason, but before we discuss any potential regression with AC, let's not forget he currently leads the country in assist percentage (% of field goals scored by team assisted by the player). And #2 in that category is Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse who visits The Dome on Sunday. If you like point guard play, this one should be a beauty.

Stan Heath's ability to get his teams better and better as the season goes along continues to impress. The adjustments the Bulls have made every year under his tenure show he's less concerned about running his particular philosophy or system, and much more about using the talent he has to win ball games by any means necessary. The Bulls' defensive rotations and closeouts have improved drastically since opening night. His woefully undersized front line, with Toarlyn Fitzpatrick often playing as a center, is now finding a way to protect the rim just enough to keep the Bulls in games. That's going to be a much taller order as Big East play begins, but finding a way to grind it out is USF's signature. Don't put it past this club to beat any team on any given evening.

Ken Pomeroy has the Bulls projected to go 6-12 in the Big East, and that would sound about right to me on paper as well. But they're starting to once again find that identity that made them painful to watch to anyone not wearing green and gold, but was pure beauty to their fans. This team is competing hard, and the way they're starting to find their lockdown groove makes me think they somehow find a way to go over that number. Whether 10-8 (probably the cutoff for an NCAA berth) is realistic, of that I'm not sure. But if they can stay healthy, get some consistency out of Vic Rudd, and continue to find a way to compete on the glass, they can beat any Big East opponent on nights they can knock down three-pointers. And with all the injuries and the Waverly Austin situation, that shows some very impressive work by the boys and their coaches.

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