By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - A 9-3 finish to non-conference play has USF ahead of the winning pace of last season's NCAA tourney team at this point and the Bulls are hungry for much, much more.
"Some people think, 'Oh, yah they've earned a little bit of respect and some people think it's a fluke," head coach Stan Heath said Friday. "I take the attitude, 'Well, they think we're a fluke, so let's go out and prove (ourselves) again that we're a good basketball team.' That's my mind set and I'm sure the players still play with that chip on their shoulders."
The players fully agree with last season's Big East Coach of the Year.
"You definitely want to play with a chip," Victor Rudd said. "Some people think we've turned the corner and some people think it was just a one-time thing. I think we're going to have to prove that in the Big East schedule."
USF's first shot at turning more doubters into believers comes at noon on Sunday when No. 7 Syracuse pays a visit to the Sun Dome. The Orange (13-1) are on a three-game winning streak after helping coach Jim Boeheim pass Bobby Knight on the Division I all-time wins list. Boeheim is now all alone in second place with 903 victories thanks to Syracuse's 78-53 triumph over Rutgers Wednesday.
"You get to play against one of the best coaches to ever do it and they're always one of the best teams in the country every year. It's an honor to play against them," Rudd said.
Bulls Head Into Big East Play on Hot Streak
USF capped off non-conference play with a 65-56 win at UCF on Wednesday that marked the Bulls' fourth straight victory.
Anthony Collins and Rudd both posted double-doubles after Heath didn't know if they'd be able to go in the rematch with the Knights. Collins suffered a scary neck sprain the game before against George Mason and came back to the lineup strong with 16 points and 10 assists. Rudd suffered a concussion against George Mason and returned to post 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"My thoughts and emotions just went 360 degrees around. I went from not thinking they'll play and being concerned about their health to gradually, 'Well, there might be a chance to actually seeing them out there,'" Heath said. "To see them contribute at a high level just tells you a lot about those guys and I'm very proud of them."
USF's ability to keep rolling despite injuries has them in a much better situation than last season's team from a record standpoint. The Bulls went 7-6 in non-conference play last season before posting a school-record 12 wins in the Big East.
"We have a tough Big East schedule this year, a lot of good times twice, so we have to start off with a win," Rudd said.
Heath said senior Shaun Noriega will "definitely be out" for the Bulls' battle with Syracuse. The senior has missed the past four games with a foot injury.
JaVontae Hawkins (back) and Kore White (turf toe) are possibilities for Sunday. Hawkins has been out since the Oklahoma State game on Dec. 5 and White has missed the past two games.