By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 8, 2005
TAMPA - South Florida already has more wins than last season and needed just one Conference USA game Wednesday to match last season's league total.
Today, in their conference home opener against Alabama-Birmingham, the Bulls will get a better sense of how much better they can be and how many fans might be along for the ride.
"We feel like we have a lot of proving to do," senior point guard Brian Swift said. "Nobody expects anything from us, but we want to work hard and try to be in the top half of the conference."
That's lofty expectations for a team ranked last out of 14 teams in the coaches' preseason rankings. The first step is to finish in the C-USA top 12, which would put the Bulls in the conference tournament in Memphis, typically requiring at least three or four conference wins.
"This team, looking at where we were last year, it would mean a lot being able to play in Memphis," coach Robert McCullum said. "If you can get there, anything can happen, and no one can convince me otherwise. I've been a part of programs on both sides of that."
McCullum was an assistant on the 1998-99 Illinois team that went 3-13 in conference, then upset three teams in three nights to reach the Big Ten championship game. This year's Bulls took their first steps toward Memphis with an impressive 72-71 win Wednesday at East Carolina, their first C-USA road win under McCullum. That and a 5-0 Sun Dome record have given them a momentum that could build today.
"We were a battered team last year, so we really needed confidence as we prepared for conference play, and I feel like I got that," said McCullum, whose team lost by one to UAB in March on a last-second 3-pointer. "Winning Wednesday, I can't even put it into words, but it was a huge momentum and confidence boost, doing something we haven't done in quite some time."
Not only did the Bulls (8-4) win, they did so after trailing by 10 at halftime. Senior forward Terrence Leather had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and Swift matched a career high with nine assists. Freshman guard Collin Dennis, emerging as a third offensive threat, had 15 points off the bench. McCullum said he was also encouraged his players could win on a night when they weren't playing their best.
"It wasn't one of our better performances, but there's something to finding a way to win on the road, when you don't play your best," he said.
Whether attendance will follow the Bulls' improvement is another question. The Bulls have averaged an announced 2,155, well below last year's average of 3,348. This year's biggest announced crowd of 2,236 isn't close to the smallest announced in 15 homes games last season, 2,703.
In USF's defense, its five home games have been against lesser opponents with little drawing power, something that changes with the C-USA season. Last year's conference home opener against Louisville drew 7,011, and this season's schedule includes dates against big-name programs such as Cincinnati and Memphis.
What's more, USF has invested in its first radio and TV advertising campaign in seven years. McCullum has been disappointed with the attendance but is focusing on other aspects of his program, knowing they could lead to a stronger following.
"It's something that I try not to focus on," he said. "I'm human. I walk out there and see all the empty seats. But there's so many other things I have to concern myself with, so I try not to dwell on it."
Facing an 11-3 UAB team that took home a share of the C-USA regular-season crown last year and made a strong run in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulls have another opportunity to give fans a reason to give them a look in the next two months.
"You've got a Sweet 16 team coming in here, and this is going to make our season that much brighter if we come out with a victory," said Swift, who will have his hands full with a talented Blazers backcourt. "We're just preparing well and getting focused, and hopefully we can come away with a big one."