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Bulls welcome life at bottom of Big East


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http://www.sptimes.com/2005/10/26/Sports/Bulls_welcome_life_at.shtml

By GREG AUMANN

Published October 26, 2005

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NEW YORK - This year's Big East is being touted as the best and deepest conference in college basketball history, and the most impressive view of the league may be from the very bottom.

"It's conceivable that a team could not qualify for the Big East tournament, and yet qualify for postseason play, as strange as that may sound," USF coach Robert McCullum said. "That speaks to the balance of the league, and I don't know a better way to measure a league. There's nothing like being associated with something considered to be the best."

As was the case a year ago in Conference USA, the Bulls are expected to be picked to finish last in the 16-team league when the preseason poll of Big East coaches is released today at the conference's media gathering at Madison Square Garden.

And that ultimate underdog status suits the Bulls just fine.

"I know we're getting picked last in pretty much everything, but we could really surprise people," said sophomore guard Collin Dennis, the team's top returning scorer after a humble 6.6 points per game last season.

"If we glue, if everybody just buys into what we're trying to do, I think we could be a real big surprise."

That's where last year's Bulls (14-16) left off, finishing a lackluster season with a wild run in the Conference USA tournament, winning three of their final four games and knocking off two ranked opponents along the way.

Again, USF's first goal in exceeding expectations will be to earn a spot in the conference tournament, to make a return trip to New York City and MSG. The top 12 teams make that field, but last year's Bulls showed that if they can get in the tournament, they can be dangerous.

"We were this close to achieving great things," senior center Solomon Jones said. "We lost a couple of games early by one or two points. We still made it to Memphis, and we were picked last, not supposed to even make it there. We've got the same thing going for us this year."

Freshman Chris Howard, expected to start at point guard, has earned early praise from his teammates, and another key for the Bulls will be how junior guard David Sills adapts to the discipline and structure of playing under McCullum.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That's what I live by," Sills said of his first week of practice. "It's been good for both me and coach McCullum. He's been on me, and I feel like I've responded positively. I haven't given up; I haven't quit.

CLOSE TO A CROWN: USF's men's soccer team, 7-2 in the Big East and leading the conference standings with two games to play, has a game at Louisville tonight, and with a win there, the Bulls can clinch an improbable regular-season league title at home at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Cincinnati.

The Bulls haven't lost a conference game at home, and they've locked up a home game in next week's Big East tournament. A win in either of the final two matches clinches a first-round bye and a quarterfinal match at home the weekend of Nov. 5.

TOUGH ROAD: The Big East didn't do USF any favors with Hurricane Wilma, but the postponement of the homecoming football game with West Virginia until Dec.3 wasn't the worst of it.

USF's women's soccer team, needing a win in its final league game to clinch a spot in the Big East tournament, was scheduled to finish its regular season at home against Syracuse on Sunday.

Because of the hurricane, the league moved that match to a neutral site - Milwaukee, where Syracuse had played Marquette on Friday. What made that location especially difficult for the Bulls was the memory of their last trip to Marquette, when Mark Dafeldecker, the father of Bulls player Erin, died of a heart attack. The Bulls lost 3-2 to Syracuse, spoiling what had been an encouraging finish to their first season in the Big East.

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