Stan Heath doesn’t want to talk about the bubble.
He would rather tell you about the chip on his shoulder and his plans for the week when he takes his USF men’s basketball team to the Big Apple for the Big East Conference tournament.
Maybe he is just tired. No Big East coach in his position has been so scrutinized about whether his team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament.
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The Bulls finished 12-6 in the conference, and all 69 Big East teams that have won 12 conference games have been invited.
But the questions persist and Heath might be running out of patience.
“We are going to the Big East tournament to try and win the tournament,” Heath said. “I still have a chip on my shoulder because I don’t feel like we get respect, and we have done a lot in this league. I want my guys to feel we have what it takes. “
He got a ringing endorsement from West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, who continued his mastery over USF.
Huggins got what he usually gets when facing USF, winning his 20th game in 21 attempts against the Bulls (first with Cincinnati and now WVU). Before he left with his 50-44 victory, he made a pitch for Heath getting what he deserves.
“They are fine,” Huggins said when asked if the Bulls are going get an invite next Sunday when NCAA Tournament bids are extended.
Heath is not so certain, but he might want to send a thank you card.
Huggins did him two favors; he spoke up for the Bulls’ legitimacy and exposed some weaknesses they need to correct.
Heath knows all about his team’s flaws, but his players might need a reminder.
“Hopefully we learned that in big games you have to do the little things to win,” Heath said.
Huggins says the NCAA selection committee cannot ignore RPI rankings and right now that is USF’s best bargaining chip.
“They are in the top 50 (35th coming into the game), and you have other people in our league who are not close,” Huggins said. “A couple of years ago, a guy on the selection committee said we are not going to use RPI. Well you have to use RPI. If not, you can’t compute strength of schedule and really can’t compute anything.”
His Mountaineers sent a message to the Bulls that they can’t get away from the style of play that has given them a 19-12 record.
The USF basketball team is not built for comfort. It cannot afford mental lapses and has to keep its defense grinding through an entire game. With the scores of its games usually under 50 points, every possession is precious and being unselfish is paramount.
USF held West Virginia (19-12, 9-9) to 28 percent shooting, which should be enough to win nearly every game. But it wasn’t. The Mountaineers won it at the free-throw line, converting 18 of 21 attempts, including 14 of 16 in the second half.
“We played what I call out of character,” Heath said. “We didn’t do a lot of the things that we normally do, like calling out ball screens and keeping them off the line. We didn’t have the patience we normally have.
“Usually we utilize a guy who is going well and has a hot hand and we didn’t do that with (Gus) Gilchrist for whatever reason. I don’t know if the magnitude of the game got to us.”
Maybe the odds just caught up with the Bulls, who played extremely well down the stretch in their two previous games, beating Cincinnati and Louisville. They seemed to make all the right decisions and got the bounces on the rim and off the floor in those games.
Against West Virginia, good fortune went the other way. In the final two minutes, they had a shot blocked under the basket, got called for a charge and made some mental mistakes on defense. For the game they had 13 turnovers, shot 2 for 14 from beyond the arc and were outrebounded 36-31, allowing WVU 13 offensive boards and 10 second-chance points.
Heath doesn’t want his players to get caught up on whether they put themselves back on the bubble. It’s just too dangerous, especially for a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
“When it’s all said and done next Sunday. maybe the Louisville game was all we needed,” Heath said. “I don’t know. I am not going to take that chance, and we are still playing games to win. I don’t care if we are 26-1. I still feel like we need to win games in the Big East tournament. It’s a new season and every game now is one and done.”
The Bulls are the sixth seed and play their first game in the Big East tournament Wednesday night against the winner of the 11th and 14th seed.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080.