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Going a long way to get far

USF is in Indiana for the NIT and likely will travel again if it wins.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002

South Florida drew the short end of the NIT stick Sunday, meaning the Bulls have perhaps the most difficult path of the 40 teams in the field to make the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Sixteen teams will play in opening-round games to reduce the field to a bracket-friendly 32. Not only is USF one of the play-in teams, but it must go on the road against one of the best teams in the field, Ball State (20-11) at 7 tonight, with virtually no preparation.

If USF (19-12) wins, it likely will have to travel to St. Joseph's (favored today at George Mason), possibly as soon as Thursday, to play another team that was ranked for several weeks early in the season.

Talk about bad draws.

Bulls coach Seth Greenberg said the NIT told him late Sunday it wanted to hold the game Wednesday, but the Cardinals had a women's NIT game scheduled in John Worthen Arena.

"I said, "Why don't you give it to us?' But they said "No,' and they moved it up to Tuesday," said Greenberg, whose team departed Monday for Indiana, half a day after learning it was in the NIT.

"We're just going to have to make the best of it."

The NIT reasoned Ball State would draw a larger gate. The Cardinals' average attendance this season was 6,975. USF's average was 5,197, which was skewed by the 10,444 sellout for the Florida game. USF's median attendance was 4,532.

The Bulls will face Auburndale High graduate Theron Smith, who has blossomed into one of the best players in the nation. Smith, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, is averaging 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds and has a double double in 13 of his past 17 games.

"It's gotten to the point where that's what you expect from him," second-year Ball State coach Tim Buckley said.

"He's terrific," Greenberg said. "He's certainly one of the best players we've faced."

Greenberg, and all Division I Florida coaches, whiffed on Smith. He originally signed with Florida Southern, the only Division II school to recruit him, but asked for and was granted a release when it became apparent he had developed into a Division I talent.

"We're just glad nobody in the Sunshine State wanted him," said Houston coach Ray McCallum, who recruited Smith to Ball State. "I thought it was a great opportunity for the next Bonzi (Wells, Ball State's all-time leading scorer) to come in."

After two solid years, Smith erupted this season. Five times he has reached 20 points and 15 rebounds in the same game. "This has been a really big breakout year for him," Buckley said.

To help combat Smith and shot-blocking 7-foot senior Lonnie Jones (2.7 bpg), the Mid-American Conference's all-time leader with 292, Greenberg could use a bigger lineup.

In the second half of USF's 79-57 Conference USA tournament quarterfinal loss to Cincinnati, 6-8, 257-pound freshman Brandon Brigman played a season-high 17 minutes, with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals.

Brigman could be used at power forward vs. Smith, with B.B. Waldon sliding to small forward, or the Bulls could play two of their three centers -- Will McDonald, Mike Bernard and/or Gerrick Morris -- at the same time.

An emphasis on defending Smith inside presents problems, as the Cardinals are adept from long range, setting a MAC record with 269 3-pointers.

Point guard Patrick Jackson (16.6 ppg) and shooting guard Chris Williams (15.0 ppg) have combined to make 143 of 363 3's (39.4 percent) this season. Smith also can step outside and has made 36-of-102 3-pointers.

Ball State's season nearly mirrors South Florida's. Each team had two huge wins early (USF vs. Pittsburgh and California; Ball State vs. Kansas and UCLA), losses in big games in December (USF vs. Florida and Syracuse; Ball State vs. Indiana, Butler and Oklahoma State), then did a little worse than hoped for in conference (USF 8-8, Ball State 12-6).

The Bulls are one of seven C-USA teams in postseason play, four of which are in the NIT. Memphis and Louisville avoided the opening-round games, but Houston must win Wednesday at Vanderbilt to advance to the first round.

-- Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this story.

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