South Florida: A bubble test case

NEW YORK -- South Florida is a lot of things:

Tough -- especially on defense.

Hard to watch -- especially on offense.

But are the Bulls an NCAA tournament team? No one is quite sure.

South Florida beat Villanova 56-47 in the second round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday night, tacking on yet another win in a record-setting season that may or may not be rewarded. Fortunately for USF, the committee does not judge on style points, or the turnover-plagued game played in the mud against Nova would automatically disqualify the Bulls.

It has been 20 years since the Bulls made their last (and the program's second) appearance in the NCAA tournament. But with Selection Sunday days away, the NCAA weather in Tampa remains cloudy with a chance of murky.

USF is 20-12 and now 13-6 against its fellow Big East members, numbers that ordinarily would be no-brainers for the selection committee. But on the same day that the Big East announced yet another new member -- Temple joins for football next season and all sports in 2013 -- the Bulls are a test case for why more isn’t always better.

With so many teams to jockey around, the league is left to make do with an unbalanced schedule. The predicted haves are front-loaded; the expected have-nots given slightly easier runs.

That’s worked both for and against South Florida this season.

By playing a less than top-heavy league schedule -- Pittsburgh, Providence and Villanova were the Bulls’ repeat opponents -- USF has been able to build up that impressive league record.

Yet by playing an easier schedule and winning just two (Cincinnati and Louisville) against the upper-tier teams, USF hasn’t been able to pad its NCAA résumé.

Which is exactly why the Bulls still loiter on the bubble.

“Twelve wins plus a tournament win in this league and there’s questions,’’ USF coach Stan Heath said. “I don’t know why there should be, but there are. It’s good fuel for us. We continue to use whatever we can to keep us hungry and those are things that motivate us.’’

According to ESPN Stats and Info, in the past 15 years, 10 Big East teams with an RPI better than 50 have failed to make the tournament field, including Cincinnati at 40 in 2006.

On the flip side, in the last 15 years, five Big East teams with an RPI worse than 50 have received at-large bids, including Marquette, which entered the tourney at 64 a year ago.

Right now the Bulls are at 44, with a 6-9 record against top-100 teams and a 1-8 mark against top-50 teams.

That’s a bubble team.

But then again, this is also a Big East tournament quarterfinal team. See the problem?

A simple cure, of course, would be a win against Notre Dame on Thursday night and a berth in the Big East semis.

It would be virtually impossible, you’d think, to keep South Florida out then.

But is it reasonable to allow a 30-plus-game season to come down to just one game? Riddle, meet enigma.

“I think we just want to win,’’ forward Victor Rudd said. “We’ve got to win to get in the tournament, so that’s what we’re going to do.’’

One thing is clear: What Heath has done is no small feat.

South Florida is a vagabond program, a lifelong conference hopper. The Bulls started in the Sun Belt, jumped to the Metro, became Conference USA and then, riding the coattails of its football team, jumped to the Big East in 2005.

Which was great for the pigskin, but you don’t grow a Big East basketball team among the retirees of Tampa easily. USF was more midseason destination, offering a few sunny days in January and February, than a game for teams to really concern themselves with.

So to finish 12-6 in the league, even if the wins weren't against the best the Big East has to offer, counts for the program.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,’’ Heath said. “This shows that our team has improved quite a bit, but we want more. We’re still very hungry."