Al Behrman, Associated Press
DAYTON, Ohio — Every pass is a risk. Every basket is an accomplishment. The scoreboard doesn't change very much and may not make it up to 50 until late in the game.
South Florida is bringing its own brand of ugliness to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulls (20-13) got to the First Four because of their ability to make a basket the ultimate challenge. They set a Big East record by allowing only 56.9 points per game this season, reducing high-flying offenses to 40 minutes of futility.
"That's what we want to do," coach Stan Heath said on Tuesday. "We want to disrupt you. We want to smell your breath. We want to get underneath your skin. We want to make life miserable for you."
Next on their misery index is California (24-9), a balanced team that has four players in double figures and has never seen anything quite like what they'll face on Wednesday night in the First Four. The Golden Bears have spent the last couple of days watching video of South Florida frustrate one offense after another, no matter what their style.
Like to shoot 3s? Not going to do it. Like to get the ball inside? Forget about it. Eager for some fast-break baskets off rebounds? Might as well just become resigned to walking the ball up the court.
During interviews on Tuesday at the University of Dayton, Pac-12 player of the year Jorge Gutierrez was asked whether California has faced another defense similar to South Florida. He thought a few seconds and couldn't identify another one. He glanced at teammate Harper Kamp for a suggestion and got none.
The Bulls pose a unique challenge.
"I think it's going to be the first (such) team," Gutierrez said. "It's going to be a real challenge on the physical side of the game. We're excited for the challenge, and we'll see what happens."
Hint: It's not going to be pretty.
South Florida held 16 opponents in the 50s in scoring and seven opponents in the 40s during the season, giving up a season-low 43 points in a win over Florida Southern. Their 58-51 win at Louisville on Feb. 29 prompted coach Rick Pitino to later equate facing their defense to getting a root canal.
The Bulls took it as the highest form of praise.
"This is certainly not the first time you've seen a defensive team go out and be successful," forward Ron Anderson Jr. said. "A lot of times nowadays, people are more interested in the flashiness of a game or how high somebody's jumping or how many blocked shots you can get. But when it's all said and done, it boils down to fundamentals.
"Every head coach across the nation, on the first day of practice, they always harp on defense. That's where you start off with. And for us, it's really helped us out, won us most of our games this year."
They need it to compensate for an offense that scores points at the same anemic rate that the defense gives them up. The Bulls don't have even one player with a double-digit scoring average. They've been held in the 40s eight times this season, with their low point a 52-40 loss to Auburn.
The Bulls thought they were ready to reach the NCAA tournament last season, but tumbled to a 10-win season that prompted their coach to reassess. They didn't have a lot of dependable scorers, so he put the emphasis on the other side of the ball.
He challenged the Bulls to embrace ugly games.
"You're trying to get ready for a season and the only thing that coach is talking about is: 'Listen, we're going to have to sacrifice individualistic play, we're going to have to sacrifice scoring, we're going to have to build our team around toughness, defense and team play,'" Heath said. "And as a player you say to yourself: 'Do I want to win, or do I want to lose?' And you have to make that decision.
"And those guys made a decision that winning was the most important thing ahead of individualistic things, and that's why we are where we are."
They've grown to love their identity.
"We'll come out of a huddle sometimes and we'll tell each other: 'All right, the next three times down the court, we want to get three stops,'" Anderson said. "And the five guys on the court, we really pride ourselves in going out there, and getting those three stops. When we get one, we yell it out: 'Got one stop!'
"That brings energy for the team. That brings the confidence of the team up. And all those things are really vital to winning the game. I think that will probably be the biggest thing."
With this team, it usually is.
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