Bulls’ culture vital to fast turnaround

FILE - South Florida guard Chris Youngblood (3) celebrates with teammate Corey Walker Jr. (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida Atlantic, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Tampa, Fla. South Florida entered The Associated Press men's college basketball poll for the first time in program history this week at No. 25. (AP Photo/Scott Audette, File)
FILE - South Florida guard Chris Youngblood (3) celebrates with teammate Corey Walker Jr. (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida Atlantic, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Tampa, Fla. South Florida entered The Associated Press men's college basketball poll for the first time in program history this week at No. 25. (AP Photo/Scott Audette, File)

South Florida started the year with a new coach in Amir Abdur-Rahim and a roster picked to finish in the bottom half of its league, then had a rough start that seemed to justify that status.

Instead, the 25th-ranked Bulls are closing February in far different position: armed with their first ranking ever in The Associated Press men's college basketball poll and chasing their first NCAA Tournament bid in a dozen years. They cracked the poll Monday and play their first game as a ranked team on Saturday at Charlotte.

"This group, obviously, nobody was talking about them early -- rightfully so, man," Abdur-Rahim said in an interview with the AP. "Let's just call it what it is. We had a few guys that people knew about ... but other than that, nobody had really done anything.

"But what we focused on was family and culture. And these guys, they've become, which has allowed them to establish a culture."

USF (21-5, 14-1) was picked ninth in the American Athletic Conference and got off to a 2-4 start with consecutive losses to Maine, Hofstra and UMass. But the Bulls have lost only once since, including a comeback from 20 down to stun then-No. 10 Memphis on the road and a win against a preseason AAC favorite coming off an improbable Final Four run in Florida Atlantic.

USF, which last lost on Jan. 7 at UAB, enters the week with 13 straight wins to trail only Saint Mary's (15) for the nation's longest winning streak behind double-figure scorers Selton Miguel (15.0), Chris Youngblood (14.9) and Kasean Pryor (12.0).

It's also another impressive run for Abdur-Rahim, who went just 1-28 in his first season at Kennesaw State as a first-time head coach in 2019-20 but got the Owls to 26 wins and their first NCAA bid last year before falling to Xavier.

Now he has the Bulls playing February games that matter, aiming to get back to the NCAAs for the first time since 2012 and fourth time ever.

"When we came back and won that Memphis game, I thought they were like, 'Oh crap, we can actually be good,' " Abdur-Rahim said. "That allowed them to really listen and apply what was being said."

COUGARS AT 1

Houston (24-3) on Monday became the fifth team this season to hold the No. 1 ranking after reigning national champion Connecticut's six-week stay at the top. The Cougars -- who have hit the top for two straight seasons -- carry that No. 1 bullseye into Tuesday's home game against Cincinnati and Saturday's trip to Oklahoma.

SEC SPOTLIGHT

Tennessee (21-6) pushed to its highest ranking of the season Monday at No. 4. The Volunteers will be tested this week to stay there.

The Vols first host No. 11 Auburn on Wednesday, then visit No. 14 Alabama on Saturday.

That represents two of the three matchups of ranked teams in the SEC, which had a nation-best six teams in the poll. The other is No. 24 Florida's visit to No. 18 South Carolina on Saturday.

OTHER TESTS

Two other ranked-vs.-ranked matchups loom for Saturday. One comes in the Big East where No. 5 Marquette visits No. 12 Creighton, while No. 7 Kansas visits No. 15 Baylor in the Big 12 after hosting a BYU team that's been ranked most of this season.

WATCH LIST

Of the top five vote-getters among unranked teams, only one -- Wake Forest -- hasn't been ranked for multiple weeks this year. In fact, the Demon Deacons haven't been ranked at all since February 2010.

But the Demon Deacons (18-9) are coming off a pair of big wins, first by routing fellow bubble team Pittsburgh and then taking down No. 10 Duke in a major boost toward an NCAA bid. Ranked No. 19 by KenPom as of Monday, Steve Forbes' Demon Deacons visit Notre Dame on Tuesday before facing another bubble team with Saturday's trip to Virginia Tech in the ACC.

  photo  FILE - South Florida head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Feb. 18, 2024 in Tampa, Fla. South Florida entered The Associated Press men's college basketball poll for the first time in program history this week at No. 25. They play Saturday, March. 1, 2024, at Charlotte.(AP Photo/Scott Audette, File)
 
 

Upcoming Events