WHO: USF (5-2) at No. 23/22 Oklahoma State (5-1)
WHEN: 9 p.m. (ET) Wednesday
WHERE: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater, Okla.
RADIO: 98.7-FM The Fan (Jim Lighthall and Todd Kalas)
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - The Bulls get a golden opportunity in an "orange place" Wednesday night.
The USF men's basketball team looks to make a splash on the national stage when it faces No. 23/22 Oklahoma State in what should be a rocking Gallagher-Iba Arena, famously known as the "rowdiest arena in the country."
"It's an orange place with a lot of people, so it will be different for our guys," head coach Stan Heath said. "It will be a great experience and if they handle this environment, they'll be able to handle any environment they face down the road."
Heath and the Bulls know walking out of the building with a victory certainly won't be easy. The Cowboys (5-1) were on a roll before slipping at Virginia Tech last week, but they have a lot of confidence at home, going 315-45 at Gallagher-Iba Arena since the start of the 1988-89 season.
"This should be the stiffest challenge we've had all year," Heath said. "It's been a long time since I went to Oklahoma State, Stillwater, and last I remember they had the Graham twins, John Lucas and Tony Allen, and it wasn't a fun experience for me."
The Bulls want to give Heath a good memory on the arena's white maple floor and they've been heating up at the right time. USF (5-2) has won three straight and looked a lot like last season's NCAA tournament team the last time out in a 64-53 win over Georgia. Anthony Collins posted 17 points and 10 assists, and led a 14-3 run that helped the Bulls pull away in the final four minutes.
"I thought down the stretch we were kind of back to where we used to be - a little tough, a little resilient - and found a way to win," Heath.
USF's brand of tough defense will be put to the test against Oklahoma State, which has no shortage of scorers. Le'Bryan Nash, last season's Big 12 Freshman of the Year, is putting up 19 points per game and other Cowboys averaging double-digit scoring figures are Marcus Smart (14.2), Markel Brown (14.0) and Phil Forte (10.2). Oklahoma State also can beat you up on the boards and has four players averaging at least 5.5 rebounds per game, led by Smart (7.7).
"We have to be ready to play and (a win) could really help us in a big way," Heath said.
The Cowboys have given up more than 65 points just once this season and the Bulls will try to go against the grain with a group of veterans that continue to lead the way.
Senior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (13 ppg) has been reliable, Jawanza Poland (10.1 ppg) is a threat no matter if he's in the starting lineup or a bench player and Collins is off to an impressive start. The sophomore is only the third Bull since the 2002-03 season to record three 10-plus assist games in a season and he ranks second nationally with 8.5 dishes per contest. Senior Shaun Noriega has posted double-digit scoring totals in three of the past four games as well.
"I think we're now figuring out who we are and what we can do," Heath said. "Once the guys really understand what we can do and how we can be effective to win games - that's what's going to make us a good team. We're getting closer and I still don't think we're firing on all cylinders."
The Bulls know making their non-conference slate a memorable one could pay dividends come NCAA tournament time and finding a way to win Wednesday would be a huge boost heading into a lengthy break. USF won't see the floor again until Dec. 18 when it hosts Youngstown State.
"This is a resume builder for you," Heath said.