- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Taking a look at the NCAA tournament third-round games on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena:
No. 12 seed South Florida (22-13) vs. No. 13 seed Ohio University (28-7), 7:10 p.m. ET
The long shots are always the best stories this time of year, the tiny universities that come out of nowhere to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
South Florida’s hardly a tiny university. But when you start thinking hoops and USF in the same breath, and then throw the Big East into the mix, it’s hard to find anybody who really thought the Bulls would be here.
Well, they’re here, and they face Ohio University on Sunday night for a chance to make it to their first Sweet 16.
Not bad for a team that was squarely on the bubble when the NCAA pairings came out and a team that lost to Penn State and Auburn earlier this season.
For that matter, it was hard to see any of this coming before the season. The Bulls finished 10-23 a year ago under Stan Heath, his third losing season at USF, and there were a lot of people wondering if this might be his last season.
The Big East coaches picked USF to finish 14th out of 16 teams in the preseason.
Heath, who was fired at Arkansas after five seasons, had other ideas, and so did his team.
The Bulls scrapped their way to a 12-6 record in the Big East, their first winning conference record since joining the league in 2005. They squeezed into the NCAA tournament as one of the final teams in, and as a No. 12 seed, had to play in the first round in Dayton, Ohio.
They beat California late Wednesday night, traveled to Nashville on Thursday and then polished off Temple a day later, giving them their first two NCAA tournament wins in the program's history.
Even when their seed came out, the Bulls’ players were oblivious.
The only thing that mattered to them was that they were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage -- and they’re still playing.
“We’re just happy to be here, and we’re going to go out and play basketball, and regardless of what team we have in front of us, whatever the seed may be, that’s just a number,” USF senior forward Ron Anderson Jr. said. “At the end of the day, it’s just five guys going against five guys.”
Heath is no stranger to deep runs in the NCAA tournament. He worked under Tom Izzo at Michigan State and made three Final Four trips with the Spartans. Then as head coach at Kent State, Heath took the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002.
That magical run got him the job at Arkansas, but he was ousted after five seasons.
He’s proving now in his fifth season at USF -- with the Bulls’ black-and-blue brand of defense and their unselfishness on offense -- that he hasn’t forgotten how to navigate his way through March.
“The kids are so excited to be here,” Heath said. “They’re so excited to be a part of the NCAA tournament, and now we’re in the third round. I just don’t see them not seizing this moment. I just don’t see it.”
Who to watch: Ohio junior guard D.J. Cooper. You might want to loosen up the old neck muscles, because Cooper is an absolute blur on the basketball court. He’s a 5-11, 165-pound left-hander who can shoot it from deep and beat pretty much anybody he wants off the dribble. When his outside shot is going, he’s almost impossible to defend. He doesn’t shoot a great percentage from the field (35 percent), but he's fearless when it comes to taking the ball to the basket and also knows how to get his teammates involved. If you haven’t had a chance to watch Cooper play much this season, do yourself a favor and keep your eye on No. 5. He’s a treat to watch play.
What to watch: The scoreboard. With the way these two teams play defense, it’s not a stretch to think that the first team to 55 may win. South Florida is big and physical, and the Bulls swarm opponents any time they get close to the paint. They held California to 13 points in the first half of their opening-round game and then suffocated Temple 58-44 on Friday. Ohio doesn’t have South Florida’s size or length, but the Bobcats are one of the best teams in the country at turning teams over. They forced an average of 17.7 turnovers per game during the season and held Michigan to 40.7 percent shooting on Friday in their 65-60 win over the Wolverines.
No. 3 seed Florida State (25-9) vs. No. 6 seed Cincinnati (25-10), 9:40 p.m. ET
One team came within a game of winning its conference tournament.
The other team did win its conference tournament.
Both teams will tell you that they play in the toughest hoops conference in the land.
It’s the ACC versus the Big East on Sunday night in the third round of the East Regional, and while their styles may not be exactly the same, Cincinnati and Florida State have the identical mentality when it comes to living to see another day in the NCAA tournament.
“You’ve got to train your guys to play with tremendous toughness,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “If you let some of these teams run their offense, they’re so good. The coaching is so good. The skill level is so sky-high. You’re going to give up baskets.
“You’ve got to be able to take people out of what they’re doing to try and create some easy baskets for your team, because it’s so hard to score on the other end.”
It’s a way of life in the Big East, according to the Cincinnati players.
“Every game, it’s like you’re playing for your life,” Cincinnati senior guard Dion Dixon said. “That’s why you see so many games come down to the end, and it’s not always pretty.
“But what it does is prepare you for this. One bad game, and you’re gone. Your back’s to the wall as soon as you step onto the court. That’s OK with us because we feel like we’re at our best when our backs are to the wall.”
The Bearcats’ only two losses since the middle of February were to a pair of teams still playing. They lost in the Big East tournament championship game to Louisville (50-44) and at South Florida (46-45) back on Feb. 26.
“You’ve got to be able to grind, and when you get good looks, you’ve got to be able to make clutch shots, especially in the second half,” Dixon said. “We’ve been able to do that.”
As equipped as the Bearcats think they are to advance to the second week of the tournament, the Seminoles are equally nasty on defense and took down both Duke and North Carolina en route to winning the ACC tournament championship.
And consider this: They won their second-round NCAA tournament game on Friday over St. Bonaventure despite their leading scorer, junior guard Michael Snaer, going scoreless for the first time in his career.
“We lean on each other and don’t have to depend on just one player or one aspect of our team,” Florida State senior forward Bernard James said. “That’s something that we’ve emphasized, being able to win games in a lot of different ways. But the constant with us is always going to be our defense.”
Who to watch: Michael Snaer. He was 0-for-7 against St. Bonaventure and didn’t score a point. Snaer averaged 14.5 points during the season and shot 42.1 percent from the 3-point line. The chances of him going scoreless again are about as good as Steve Spurrier showing up behind the Florida State bench with his face painted up in Seminoles colors. Snaer’s too good of a player not to bounce back, but the Bearcats will work hard to keep him from getting into any kind of groove early.
What to watch: The zone. Cincinnati has been able to change up its defenses and again had some success with the 2-3 zone on Friday. Cronin was pleased with the way the Bearcats rebounded out of the zone in their second-round win over Texas. He also thinks the zone helps get senior forward Yancy Gatessome rest. The 6-foot-10 James is Florida State’s main threat inside, but the Seminoles also start 6-11 center Xavier Gibson.