WHO: UCF at USF
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Sun Dome
TV: BHSN / ESPN3 (Adam Kohler, play-by-play; Anddrikk Fraser, analyst0
RADIO: 98.7 FM-The Fan (Jim Lighthall, play-by-play; Todd Kalas, analyst)
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - An exciting in-state rivalry heats back up on the hard court Saturday night at the Sun Dome.
The USF men's basketball team opens its regular season up against UCF with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Bulls' new home. The Bulls are 19-6 in their all-time series with the Knights and have won 10 of the past 12 meetings.
The teams haven't faced off since 2010, but both sides know the importance of getting a victory. The game marks USF's first contest that counts since coming within one win of reaching the Sweet 16. The Knights won 22 games last season and are looking to make a great impression against an opponent they'll be seeing often in the Big East.
"I know they wouldn't like anything more than to come in here, bring it and get a chance to steal one. We have to protect home and it's not going to be easy," USF head coach Stan Heath said.
USF has an extra sense of urgency because it wants to get back to the NCAA tournament and knows a lot of wins before Big East play will help.
"We want to have a better nonconference season. I really want our focus there," Heath said. "We weren't very good last year in non-conference and this year I want that the goal first."
The Bulls' ability to heat up in Big East play allowed the team to reach the 22-win mark last season as Heath earned conference coach of the year honors. Expectations have only gotten higher since then and USF is determined to keep moving forward with a reloaded lineup.
"Last year's team set a different standard for USF basketball," senior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "We definitely don't want to take a step back, especially with it being my senior year and being a team captain."
Fitzpatrick and his teammates want to start quicker in non-conference play and they'll be getting to the hoop faster in the process. Now equipped with more speed and athleticism, Heath's squad will use more of an up-tempo style that started to take shape in Monday's exhibition win over Eckerd. Four different players scored in double figures in a tune-up for what could be a shootout on Saturday.
"It will be a lot more exciting to watch because we have guys like Victor (Rudd) that can get a rebound and push it up instead of grabbing it, holding it, giving it to a guard and walking it up the floor," said Fitzpatrick, who scored 13 points on Monday. "It's going to definitely be an up and down game and probably give the fans a little bit more to cheer about."
Fans will be cheering often if USF plays its solid brand of defense that limited opponents to just 56.6 points per game last season. Tough defense ultimately led to the Bulls having a breakout season and they hope to continue the trend starting Saturday night.
"We're going to have to get back to that grind it out mentality with tough basketball, especially on the defensive and rebounding end to have success," Heath said.
USF will start its season off in style with a pep rally and student party set for 5:30 p.m. Saturday outside of Gate D with special performances by the USF Spirit Squads.