South Florida and Ohio don’t have much in common, but the pursuit of a berth in the Sweet 16 has the Bulls and the Bobcats ready to charge.
The squads will meet for only the second time Sunday night when they square off in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in Nashville. The winner will earn a trip to St. Louis while the other returns home singing the blues.
After pulling second-round upsets in the NCAA Tournament, the squads have surpassed others’ expectations — but not their own.
“I always think we can play better and do things better,” Ohio coach John Groce said. “I think as soon as you think you’ve arrived, you’re in trouble.”
Ohio (28-7) beat fourth-seeded Michigan 65-60 on Friday to advance in its tournament opener. The Bobcats beat the Wolverines for the first time in school history by holding them to 30 percent on 3-point field goals, their trademark shot. But Ohio will need a different approach to corral the Bulls.
South Florida (22-13) relies on its defense and inside presence instead of its 3-point game. Leading the way is senior Augustus Gilchrist, a 6-foot-10 forward who averages 9.6 points and five rebounds per game.
The Bulls finished in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big East. They have no players who averages 10 points per contest, but five contribute at least eight points on a regular basis. They play slow-paced, disciplined basketball that puts an emphasis on working the shot clock and taking advantage of mismatches inside.
South Florida starts four players that are at least 6-foot-6, and point guard Anthony Collins is 6-foot-1. That means the Bobcat starters will have a significant height disadvantage at every position.
“We ran into a few 7-footers, 6-10, 6-11 kids all year,” said junior forward Reggie Keely, the tallest player in Ohio’s rotation at 6-foot-8. “I think I held my own, did a good job against those guys. I try to stay aggressive and physical and try to impose my will on the game.”
The Bobcats’ only matchup against the Bulls came way back in 1974, when Ohio won 73-63 in Tampa. But Groce was only 3 years old then, and South Florida was in only its fourth season as a basketball program.
Bulls’ coach Stan Heath has more experience with Ohio and the Mid-American Conference, as he played three seasons for Eastern Michigan and coached Kent State to its magical Elite Eight run during the 2001-2002 season. Heath went 1-5 against the Bobcats as a player but was 2-0 during his only season with the Golden Flashes.
“I’m the first to tell you we will not underestimate Ohio,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with the personnel and the stuff that they run, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to play, and we will be.”
South Florida prefers an extremely slow pace that puts greater emphasis on each possession. The Bulls average only 60 possessions per game, the fourth-lowest total of all 344 NCAA Division I basketball teams. They have not allowed an opponent to score 60 points since Feb. 4, but they have only scored 60 points twice during that stretch.
“We’ve got to take every opportunity we have to run, push the pace,” Keely said. “Again, we’ve got to try to force our will and hopefully … get the score in the high 60s, 70s. We know (South Florida) can’t play with that type of style.”
OHIO vs. South Florida
7:10 p.m. Sunday
Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
— Ohio is looking for its second win in one NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1964.
— South Florida starts four players who are 6-foot-6 or taller.
— Bobcat point guard D.J. Cooper needs four steals to break the all-time program record.