South Florida needs only one win in its final five regular-season games to finish with a winning record in Big East play.
That might not be much of an accomplishment for some programs, but it would be monumental for South Florida, which has largely been a punching bag since moving to the Big East from Conference USA for the start of the 2005-06 season.
Beside its 9-9 mark in 2009-10, South Florida has finished 1-15, 3-14, 3-15 4-14 and 3-15 in its other seasons in the Big East. A winning conference record would likely at least put the Bulls in the discussion for their first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
South Florida (16-10, 9-4) matched its highest Big East win total on Wednesday by beating visiting Villanova 65-51. The victory was the Bulls' third straight and seventh in nine games.
South Florida held Gibbs to just four points in a 63-51 home win on Feb. 8. Woodall was the only Pitt player to score in double figures, finishing with 11 points.
South Florida shot 61 percent while holding Pitt to 35 percent. Both teams had 17 turnovers.
TRENDING: South Florida held a 30-29 rebounding edge against Villanova. That marked the ninth straight game in which the Bulls have outrebounded their opponent, South Florida's longest such streak since the 1995-96 season.
Bulls' pride in defense paying off
--It is difficult to imagine that a team ranked 301st in scoring in the nation could be one of the top teams in the Big East, but that is just what South Florida has done.
The Bulls, perhaps the feel-good story in the league, have ridden a special defense to an impressive record in the Big East and probably put themselves in contention for an NCAA Tournament invitation.
While last in the Big East in scoring at 61.1 points a game through Feb. 12, they were third in defense at 60.3, almost three full points ahead of their closest pursuer.
Defense has become so important that on the evening the Bulls upset a streaking and desperate Pitt team, an evening when senior guard Hugh Robertson went 7-for-7 from the field and scored a season-high 18 points, it did not matter nearly as much to him as his defense.
He had been assigned to Pitt's high-scoring guard, Ashton Gibbs, and he could read in Gibbs' eyes that he had done his job.
"He kept looking at his teammates, or he just had his head down all night," Robertson said. "That's what it's about, most definitely. That says he's beat, I conquered him. That's the main goal."
It was an interesting matchup, for Robertson at 6-foot-6 is much larger than Gibbs and that bothered him greatly.
Gibbs was averaging 16.8 points a game as the preseason choice for the Big East's Player of the Year, but he didn't score until the second half and finished with a season-low four points on 2-of-9 shooting. It was Gibbs' lowest scoring total since he was a sophomore.
--After beating Providence for the second time this season on Feb. 11, South Florida found itself four games over .500 in the Big East for the first time since it joined the conference.
--USF paid special attention to Providence's freshman LaDontae Henton, who busted out for 24 first-half points on his way to a career-high 33 in the first meeting between the teams this season. Henton went just 3-for-8 and finished with seven points in the rematch.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- The number of 3-point attempts Pitt's Ashton Gibbs managed to get off against South Florida and 6-foot-6 defender Hugh Robertson after coming into the game with 61 made threes. He made none in the game. "I think that played a major part in me stopping him," Robertson said. "I think my length is what did the job."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I definitely knew my time was going to come. We needed some shots at the end and my coaches and teammates have faith in me." -- G Shaun Noriega, coming off the bench to hit consecutive 3-pointers and clinch a crucial victory over Providence.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Pittsburgh, Feb. 19
KEY MATCHUPS: South Florida just finished beating Pitt, but going to their home court is a different story. The Panthers are in a desperate situation in regard to postseason play and will be at a high pitch for this game. USF G Hugh Robertson shut down high-scoring Pitt G Ashton Gibbs in the first meeting with four points, something that doesn't figure to happen twice. Pitt is usually as good as PG Tray Woodall allows them to be. The Panthers got in trouble when he was out for an extended period due to an abdominal injury.
FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore G Blake Nash came out of the West, having played high school ball in California and Arizona before going to junior college for a season and then coming to South Florida. He has given them some good minutes this year. While Jawanza Poland was sitting out a suspension, he played as much as 31 minutes in a game and showed a scoring potential. He's averaging 15 minutes a game and 4.6 points.
--Senior G Hugh Robertson more than doubled his season scoring average with a 14-point performance in a 65-51 victory over Villanova on Wednesday. That lifted his season average to 6.9. Not only did Robertson finish as South Florida's co-leader in scoring, but most of his points came in the game's most pivotal moments. Robertson keyed a decisive 10-2 run that put South Florida ahead 33-25 with 13 minutes to go, contributing a dunk on a fast break and two free throws.
--Sophomore G Victor Rudd had 14 points against Villanova, sharing team-high scoring honors with Robertson. Rudd continues to become more comfortable in his first season following his transfer from Arizona State. Since failing to score in 17 minutes of a loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 10, Rudd has averaged 10.4 points over the past nine games. Rudd scored a career-high 30 points in the second game of the season, a victory over Marist on Nov. 14, but then had a stretch of eight straight games from Dec. 14-Jan. 13 in which he failed to reach double figures.