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USF blows game -- and maybe NCAA shot

3/9/2012

NEW YORK – Somewhere in Philadelphia, Bruiser Flint should be crafting his argument:

"The Top 100 Reasons Why My Team Deserves To Be in the NCAA Tournament."

South Florida provided 99 for the Drexel coach.

The Bulls, fighting to prove why they belonged in the bracket, instead gave the selection committee a litany of reasons for why they didn’t.

Forget the RPI and the 1-9 record against RPI top-50 teams. Forget the unbalanced schedule that worked against the Bulls in terms of SOS.

Just go to the eye test and watch the final few minutes of regulation and the extra period in their 57-53 overtime loss to Notre Dame. The federal government could put it on a loop to force bad guys to confess.

It was equal parts painful and foolish, a one-two self-inflicted punch that could prove to be a knockout.

Missed layups, missed front ends of one-and-ones, turnovers, dribbling aimlessly for 23 of the final 25 seconds with a four-point deficit and throwing the ball out of bounds on a last-ditch attempt to win it.

How did USF blow it? Let us count the ways.

And the Bulls blew it on a bubblicious night when Texas and Cal likely played their way in with wins and North Carolina State and Colorado State at least played their way into the discussion.

Instead, USF joined Washington, Northwestern and Mississippi State in the losers’ bracket of teams that will spend an uncomfortable Sunday evening.

Of course, beauty or ugliness, as Stan Heath said, is in the eye of the beholder -- and when the USF coach gazed upon the mess, he saw a masterpiece.

“Hopefully we erased any doubt of what kind of basketball team we are,’’ he said. “We belong. We definitely belong. Giving that kind of effort on the defensive end, you have to really appreciate when you have teams that sacrifice themselves on the defensive end. People on the outside, the casual observer, don’t know how difficult that is, don’t understand that. Teams like us not only get in, they win and advance.’’

Heath’s assessment of his defense is fair. The Bulls do play hard and they challenge shots, using their size inside to make everything difficult. In one ridiculous effort, Gus Gilchrist managed to block Jerian Grant despite falling backward and out of bounds.

But this wasn’t about the defense making things ugly. Good defense should be lauded.

This is about the offense making things uglier.

As active and disruptive as the Bulls’ defense is, their offense is that lackluster. It is like watching chess, with players just standing around like statues.

South Florida led by three with 2:45 to play in a game when three points might as well have been 300, and lost. Frankly, it lost multiple times.

First, when with 33 seconds to play and USF up 45-44, Jawanza Poland got out on the break with absolutely no one but a row of cheerleaders near him and the basket ... and missed a layup.

“He should have finished that layup,’’ Heath said. “He’s point-blank, all by himself. He makes it and the game is over. It’s done.’’

Second, when Poland, strangely fouled by Scott Martin after that miss, clanked the front end of a one-and-one.

Third, when Poland made the worst 33 seconds of his life even worse, fouled Pat Connaughton.

Because the Irish were every bit as culpable in this disaster, Connaughton naturally missed one of two free throws to tie it with 26 seconds left.

“That was unusual,’’ Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said with a chuckle. “We threw a bomb to Pat and he got fouled. I thought, this is getting wild.’’

Ah, but there were five more minutes of wild to come. Notre Dame edged out to a four-point lead when Eric Atkins, without a field goal in the entire game, drained a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play.

USF got the ball back and point guard Anthony Collins showed all the urgency of a senior citizen on a freeway.

It would have been a comedy of errors if weren’t so hard to understand and if the potential ramifications weren’t so bad.

“I’ll be honest, I won’t sleep,’’ Heath said. “You want to hear your name called on Sunday at 6 o’clock. I think we’ve done a great job by putting ourselves in a great position. I think our team is worthy. But there’s some people that have a lot of information that make wise decisions and we’ll let our case rest with them.’’

There is no shame in losing to Notre Dame. The Irish are a very good team, owners of a 22-10 record now and a legit top Big East squad.

And Heath should be commended for what he’s done. He has retooled a team that won 10 games all of last season into one that won 12 in the Big East alone this season.

But at this time of year it is not enough to talk about what you’ve done. You have to compare your results and your game to others.

You have to look like an NCAA tournament team -- and in its last game before Selection Sunday, USF didn’t.