South Florida men’s basketball is on an unbelievable heater– but also still on the bubble

South Florida Bulls during a men’s basketball game against the Florida Atlantic University Owls on February 18, 2024. (Stephen Galvin/South Florida Basketball)

What if I told you there was a team that’s won 19 of its last 20 games, has beaten teams that were ranked 10th and 24th in the country during that stretch, and currently sits at 14-1 in its conference?

You’d think that team was an NCAA Tournament lock, right?

So why is South Florida on the bubble?

The Bulls might be as anonymous a basketball program as any directional school you can think of — Northern Kentucky, East Tennessee State, Western Carolina (hell, all of those schools have as much tournament history as USF does)– but this may already be the best season they’ve ever seen in Tampa.

Head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim has immediately vaulted the program to heretofore unforeseen heights in his first year on the job– on an ascent so rapid it’d make your nose bleed.

Abdur-Rahim is the brother of greatest Vancouver Grizzlies player of all-time, Shareef, who’s now president of the NBA G League. He didn’t have a 13-year NBA career like his bro, but Amir has been a coaching wunderkind, having already turned a Kennesaw State program that went a grisly 1-28 in his first year into a 26-win NCAA Tournament squad in his fourth.

He’s kept things rolling in Year 1 at USF, already threatening the program record for wins in a season. If the Bulls win out and earn a couple of postseason victories, they’ll have it.

How has he done it?

Well as you’d expect, South Florida is transfer-heavy, with leading scorer and senior guard Chris Youngblood (15 ppg) having followed Abdur-Rahim from Kennesaw State. Junior forward Kasean Pryor (11.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg) came down from Boise State, sophomore guard Kobe Knox spent last year at Grand Canyon, and senior guard Selton Miguel spent the first two years of his college career at Kansas State (though he played at USF last year).

South Florida Bulls during a men’s basketball game against the University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners on January 27, 2024. (Stephen Galvin/South Florida Basketball)

This may be a team of talented mercenaries, but it’s gelled in a short time– and out of nowhere, the Bulls have become the class of an American Athletic Conference that includes a Final Four participant from last year (Florida Atlantic), a highly-touted group that spent time in the top 10 this season (Memphis), and programs with a lot more basketball history (SMU, Temple, Wichita State, Charlotte, North Texas).

South Florida hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since another near-miraculous appearance as a Big East team in 2012, then under head coach Stan Heath.

They were picked to finish ninth in the preseason AAC poll. Yet here they are, running roughshod over everybody.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, despite a 21-5 record, they’re still squarely on the bubble. The Selection Committee loves to judge teams in March by what they did in November– and this group struggled when it was first coming together, as you might expect of any newly-assembled squad.

South Florida was just South Florida back then, the same as it had always been, so nobody batted an eye when it lost games to Central Michigan, Maine, Hofstra and UMass. Now those November losses look as bad on their resume as a 5-year gap between jobs (I was volunteering for coffee farmers in Bolivia, alright?)

After that UMass loss, South Florida would have just about had to go undefeated the rest of the season to get itself into at-large NCAA Tournament conversation. And they damn near have. The Bulls beat ACC opponent Florida State, 88-73, in their next game and then stunningly, miraculously embarked on a 19-1 stretch that has been downright majestic.

USF’s only loss during that span was a 75-71 defeat at UAB on Jan. 7. It hasn’t lost since.

South Florida is in Joe Lunardi’s latest version of Bracketology as an 11-seed— but that’s because they’re sitting in the top spot in the AAC right now. They’re on the verge of crashing the Top 25 rankings, but because of those early losses and a zero games against Quad 1 opponents, they’re sitting in a tenuous spot in terms of an NCAA Tournament berth.

If the Bulls keep winning– their remaining games are at Charlotte (17-10, 11-4/AAC), vs. Tulane (13-13, 4-10), and at Tulsa (14-13, 5-10)– they’re going to have to be in, Quad 1 victories or not.

But if they slip up in the conference tournament (this league does have a returning Final Four team), it’s going to make for a very nervy Selection Sunday.

It wouldn’t be right to leave South Florida out of the Big Dance after the season they’ve had so far, but that’s college basketball.

We didn’t know they’d be here, but now that they are, it’d be nice to see them stick around for a while.

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