USF basketball has entered nearly uncharted territory. When they open a huge, three-game road swing Wednesday night at No. 7 Georgetown, the Bulls will be gunning for a fourth consecutive conference victory -- something USF's program hasn't accomplished since it belonged to the now-defunct Metro Conference.
"A week and a half ago, we were trying to get into the race," Head Coach Stan Heath said. "We're in the race right now and we've got a chance to win more games and play beyond just the regular season, which we haven't done in a long, long time. So there's a lot in front of us, but we can't bypass the next game and the important things -- preparing and working and staying very hungry."
On the strength of their current three-game Big East win streak, the Bulls are flirting with a status they haven't achieved in years. The last time USF won a trio of consecutive league games was as a member of Conference USA in 2005, when the Bulls topped Charlotte in their regular-season finale, then knocked off Houston and Cincinnati in the conference tournament. You have to go all the way back to the Bulls' last NCAA Tournament team in 1992 to find a longer league win streak. That squad won six straight to close out its historic season and secure an at-large berth.
And at 4-5 in league play, USF could get to .500 in the conference standings for the first time since 2003, when Seth Greenberg's team started 6-6 and finished 7-9 in C-USA.
"I feel like this winning streak we're on is elevating our game, even in practice. We're practicing harder. We're coming more together. Everybody is accepting their role," guard Dominique Jones said. "All the doubts you have about whether or not something is going to work just goes out of your mind when you're winning because, obviously, the formula is working."
The Bulls' formula during their recent success has included plenty of offensive firepower from Jones, who leads the Big East in scoring in league games at 26.8 points per game, and good ball security. USF committed a season-low five turnovers Sunday against Pitt and just 19 total in overtime wins against Providence and Seton Hall.
"We're just focused. At the same time, after we win games like (against Pitt), we always say, be humble but be hungry. That's just the main mindset in that locker room right now. A lot of teams have said that they can't wait to play certain teams in this league, and we're one of those teams on that list. We're just going out and trying to prove people wrong," point guard Chris Howard said.
"We've got a little swagger about us. When you win, you feel good. It's giving guys like myself a lot of confidence to go out and knock down shots. There's a confidence building throughout the whole team."
The challenge immediately in front of USF is a Georgetown team that is coming off an 89-77 dismantling of Duke last Saturday. The teams have a brief but interesting history. USF won the first-ever meeting between the schools in 1973. They met again in the 1992 NCAA Tournament first round, and USF's 2006 win over the Hoyas was its first marquee victory as a member of the Big East. Georgetown has won the past two meetings and leads the series 5-2.
"We're going in there like it's just another Big East game. It's a road game. We understand how difficult it is to get one on the road in this conference," Howard said.
"When I come in the locker room, guys look at me and say, Chris, this is your best year since you came here. I
tell them, yes, I have never been this excited about playing basketball here at the University of South Florida. I think those guys also look at me and say, let's do it for Chris in his senior year, Alex Rivas in his senior year, Mike Mercer in his senior year. That's the mindset that Dominique and those younger guys have. They want to win for us and I don't know if it's been that way here in the past few years."
"Our guys are growing. They're getting tougher. The Providence game was very inspirational for us and it has continued to help us get momentum," he said. "We haven't really been in these positions before, so it's kind of new territory for us, but that's what you want as a coach. You want your team to come together, to buy in, to believe, to fight, and all those things are happening right now for us. We still have a long ways to go with a big road swing in front of us, but we've made tremendous growth over the last two weeks."