The Washington Times - February 6, 2008, 12:10PM

\ I’ve tried to make it a point to see Georgetown a few times this season, if only to become more familiar with personnel I’ll probably see quite a bit come March.\ \ \ Of course, that was my thinking in December, when the Hoyas were unbeaten and Maryland was flopping about helplessly against any team that had the temerity to roll their bus into the Comcast Center loading dock.\ \ \ Last night’s trip to Verizon Center turned out to be intriguing because of the Hoyas’ opponent —- South Florida, a school that joined the Big East three years ago as part of a shakeup around the college sports landscape.\ \ \ It made sense for the Big East in football. But in basketball, the Bulls were an odd fit to be coming in along with Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette. And sure enough, a program that typically finished in the middle of the Conference USA pack turned out to be not quite so good in the Big East, and coach Robert McCullum was canned after last year.\ \ \ USF is 5-37 in conference play in two-plus seasons after losing 63-53 at Georgetown last night, but it was a plucky effort. The Bulls made 10 of their first 13 shots and led 22-13 early on before the Hoyas’ superior talent and depth took over.\ \ \ And for first-year coach Stan Heath, that was progress.\ \ \ “I think we can build on some things here,” Heath said. “We guarded and really defended really well. I wish we did a better job rebounding wise, especially the offensive rebounding they got against us. That’s a team a lot of people have a hard time guarding and we did a pretty good job. we started to have a little patience offensively and make them guard us, too.”\ \ \ But there’s no sugar-coating this part —- it was the Bulls’ ninth straight loss. They relied on a seven-man rotation until the final minute, and that’s not the route to victory in any major conference. \ \ \ It leaves USF dead last in the 16-team confederation that is the Big East and three games out of 12th place with eight to play. That, by the way, is the threshold for reaching the conference tournament, which the Bulls have missed their first two years in the league.\ \ \ “Coach says all the time we can’t hang our head,” senior center Kentrell Gransberry said. We just have to go out and play the next game. It happens all the time in life. You can’t dwell on the past. we have DePaul on [Saturday] and that’s all we have to worry about.”\ \ \ So it doesn’t look like Gransberry’s career will end at Madison Square Garden. But what about the rest of the youthful Bulls, whose other six top players are split evenly between juniors, sophomores and freshmen.\ \ \ The addition of Heath will help in the long run. The former Tom Izzo assistant parlayed one excellent season at Kent State into being the nation’s “It Coach” and the Arkansas gig. He gradually made the Razorbacks better, though consecutive 20-win seasons and NCAA berths didn’t seem to please former AD Frank Broyles. So Heath was fired, and landed at USF a few weeks later.\ \ \ What was encouraging from listening to Heath is it seems pretty clear he is realistic about what he has right now. The Bulls had a growth spurt in competition with the move to the Big East, and the program is trying to catch up. \ \ \ Coaches everywhere claim an aversion to moral victories, and for good cause. But there’s also no reason to beat up a team that usually plays hard (if not well).\ \ \ “I have to keep my chin up and i have to do a good job of doing that for my team because it’s not easy,” Heath said. “I understand I have some work to do. At some point, we want to be like Georgetown where we have eight or nine players and I don’t have to play all those guys so many minutes where they’re dying and trying to catch their breath. We’re going to get to that point. This is kind of the building surface that we’re at right now, where guys are laying it out there and planting the seeds for our future. I’m proud these guys are hanging in there right now.”\ \ \ A valid question that remains is just what is the ceiling for a program with two NCAA one-and-dones to its credit (1990 and 1992) and more than 850 miles separating it from its closest league opponent (Louisville is slightly closer to USF than Georgetown). The Big East added four teams from 1996 to 2001; Notre Dame, the headliner, was not too far removed from being a national power. \ \ \ West Virginia would occasionally make some postseason noise, then made a shrewd coaching hire and is considered a good program. Virginia Tech (eventually coached by Seth Greenberg, who bolted USF and was succeeded by McCullum) flopped about, defected to the ACC and has acquitted itself rather well in its new digs. Rutgers is still seeking its first winning record in conference play; this is season No. 13 in the Big East for the Scarlet Knights.\ \ \ Those are three pretty distinct paths: Rise to the occasion, leave for a better geographic fit after a few years, and aspire for mediocrity in a market that doesn’t pay all that much attention to you. The funny thing is, USF could go down any one of those roads.\ \ \ But that won’t be fully decided this year. But as Heath alluded to, the foundation for the Bulls’ eventual destination is being built as they endure another long haul through the Big East.\ \ \ “As long as you’re getting better —- you hate that you lost, but as long as you’re getting better you can’t fight that,” freshman guard Dominique Jones said.\ \ \ —- Patrick Stevens