WHO: USF (20-13) at California (24-9)
WHAT: First round of NCAA tournament
WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio
RADIO: WDAE 620
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
DAYTON, Ohio - Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently said playing USF is like getting a root canal.
The Bulls have brought their teeth-grinding brand of basketball to the NCAA tournament and look to show the nation just how good their defense is in a first-round test against California 9 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Dayton Arena.
"We want to disrupt you. We want to smell your breath. We want to get underneath your skin," USF head coach Stan Heath said. "We want to make life miserable for you. And we want to do it the right way. We want to do it with moving feet and active hands and helping and talking and all those different things, and closing it with rebounds."
The Bulls (20-13) certainly didn't make it easy for opponents this season, allowing just 56.9 points per game to set Big East and school records in the category.
"It all boils down to fundamentals," senior Ron Anderson Jr. said. "Every head coach across the nation, 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. That's our foundation."
If you've watched past USF games this season you'd know exactly what Pitino was talking about. The Bulls have excelled in controlling the pace of contests, which has taken opponents - like Big East champion Louisville - away from their game plans in low-scoring USF victories.
"I think it's smart. You can win with defense," California head coach Mike Montgomery said. "They've got some really good athletes. They've got some size. They've got some strength."
USF's defense will be tested against a California team that averages 71 points per game and has four players who average double-digit scoring figures. Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez became only the second player in Pac-12 history to be named the conference's player of the year and defensive player of the year in the same season.
"They play well together," Heath said. "They're very sound fundamentally, so we know we're playing a very, very good basketball team."
One key thing to look for Wednesday is if California gets its offense revved back up after dropping three of its past four games.
"I think we need to be a little more aggressive," Gutierrez said. "We saw tape on USF, and we know they're pretty physical, pretty big. So I think we need to help each other be physical as well."
The Bears have reached the 24-win mark for only the second time since the 1960s and have accomplished the impressive feat with solid defense of their own. Opponents have managed 61 points and committed 12 turnovers per game against California, which grabbed attention when it held San Jose State to 36 points in December.
USF has been known to kick it up a notch on offense when it has needed to by scoring 70 or more points six times this season. The Bulls have avoided shootouts, however, with unselfish play on both ends of the floor with the defense setting the table for slow-paced showdowns.
"When we get the other team to break out of their offense a little bit or go away from their game plan, the tempo and the way we want things, they kind of fall into place for us," Anderson Jr. said.
This marks USF's first trip to the NCAA tournament in 20 years and the Bulls know keeping their focus on what works best is vital in extending their stay in the dance. Wednesday's winner advances to the second round and will face fifth-seeded Temple on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
"This is really the players' time of the year. They're going to decide how far they want to go," Heath said. "If they're going to put the energy and effort and really play out there together, they're going to have a chance to move along."