Alan Dell

Bulls in tourney for the long haul

“Pack Five Suits”

Chris Howard didn’t leave room for a response. He didn’t want one.

The fifth-year senior point guard aimed his words at the South Florida coaches before they started packing their gear for this week’s Big East Conference Tournament.

Only Howard could’ve been the messenger because of the respect he commands from everyone on the USF basketball team.

His words became the mantra for the USF basketball team as it headed into the most important week in the 39 year-old history of the program.

USF entered the tournament 19-11 and 9-9 in the league. The winner will get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and the Bulls need five victories in five days at Madison Square Garden.

Howard told the coaching staff to bring a five day wardrobe. He doesn’t want to see head coach Stan Heath or any assistants sneaking out to the dry cleaners.

Actually three suits might be good enough.

After disposing of DePaul 58-49 on Tuesday, USF can put itself into the thick of the conversation with a win over Georgetown (today). Get that and there is a date with top-seeded Syracuse, the nation’s third ranked team.

A win over the Orange and it’s safe to assume the Bulls will be dancing for the first time since 1992. A victory over Georgetown and a loss to Syracuse will make USF a bonafide “Bubble” team.

For USF, it means a new way of life for the rest of the week; checking RPIs and studying mid-major tournaments while hoping every regular season champ wins to leave more at-large bids.

There is a chance the powerful Big East will send nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, and who will be the last team in is tricky. There is strength of schedule, top 50 wins and “bad losses.”

USF finished tied for ninth in the Big East regular season with Seton Hall at 9-9. The Bulls hold an overtime home victory over the Pirates (18-11) so it would seem to give them the edge.

Think again.

According to RPI, the Pirates have “quality wins” over Pittsburgh (RPI #10), Louisville (30) and Ivy League champ Cornell (48). USF’s best wins are Pittsburgh and Georgetown (14).

But Seton Hall doesn’t have a “bad loss,” while the Bulls lost to RPI 190th Central Michigan, which is like losing to your little brother. It’s something you might never live down in the eyes of a selection committee member.

The Bulls other win over a top 50 team came against 42nd Kent State. USF has a 63 RPI ranking to 55 for Seton Hall. But the Pirates strength of schedule is 31 compared to the Bulls 54th. Ironically, Seton Hall’s worst RPI loss is to USF, which could actually help the Pirates.

In the end, all this might make for a lot of gibberish. But here is a tip: The Bulls should root for Kent State to win the MAC Tournament and for South Carolina to go deep in the SEC.

Last year, the USF women believed they were a lock for the NCAA Tournament and got locked out. However, the women won the NIT, which brought them a lot more notoriety than an NCAA early exit.

If the men get snubbed or fall short, they are a sure thing for the NIT, which might mean a few home games and an opportunity to break the program’s 27 year-old single season record for wins (22).

It’s not a bad consolation prize for a team that hasn’t been to a post season tournament since 2002 and has been to only two NCAAs, losing both times in the first round.

The Bulls have already made some history with the win over DePaul making USF a 20-game winner for the first time since the 1989-90 season.

They have no pressure, and if they were to make the Big East Final Four, Heath could always borrow one of those orange jackets from Jim Boeheim if he can’t find a dry cleaners.