DAYTON, Ohio -- Cal is gearing up for its NCAA tournament First Four game against a South Florida team that will slow the tempo with its offense and deliver body blows with a rugged defense.
Wednesday's game at the Dayton Arena is likely to be low scoring. If the Bulls have their way, it will be ugly.
USF -- as the school is known in Tampa, Fla. -- set a Big East record for allowing the fewest points per game (56.9) in conference games. The Bulls rank 322nd nationally in scoring (59.2).
They limited 17 opponents to 55 points or fewer and allowed only three teams to reach 70. An extreme example of their approach that didn't quite work out: USF held West Virginia to 28.8 percent shooting in its final regular-season game, yet still lost 50-44.
"I know they're going to do damage in the NCAA tournament because they play a style that is very, very difficult to play against," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after a 56-47 Big East tournament loss to the Bulls. "We were down 10 at halftime, and down 10 to them is like 20, 25 to somebody else because of the way they control the tempo."
Playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years, the alma mater of former A's manager Tony La Russa was picked to finish 14th in the 16-team Big East. The Bulls (20-13) wound up in a three-way tie for fourth at 12-6.
Their season didn't seem headed to this destination. USF was 7-7 at the start of January and had been blown out by 28 points at Kansas and 23 at Virginia Commonwealth. They also suffered "bad" losses to Auburn, Penn State and Old Dominion.
But they got healthy and won five of their next six. The schedule helped, too. The Bulls fed primarily on the Big East's lower-echelon teams, compiling just a 2-7 record against conference foes that advanced to the NCAAs.
Almost invariably, they won with the same formula. They have no double-digit scorers on their roster, but plenty of length and bulk they maximize on defense.
"When we're grinding out possessions that helps, too, but you can't deny the fact that normally teams, their scoring is down, but their field goal percentage is down, as well," said coach Stan Heath, who once played for ex-Cal coach Ben Braun at Eastern Michigan and took Arkansas to the NCAA tournament in 2006 and '07.
"We don't give up a lot of easy baskets, we challenge shots, and we really help each other," Heath said. "I think the trust level on our defense is extremely high, and that's why I think we are so effective."
The Bulls' frontcourt could create a matchup headache for the Bears. Senior Augustus Gilchrist, who began his career at Maryland, is 6-foot-10, 235 pounds. Ron Anderson Jr., a transfer from Kansas State, is 6-8, 237 pounds -- down from 320 when he was in high school. Anderson's father played 10 seasons in the NBA.
Small forward Victor Rudd, at 6-7, is a transfer from Arizona State, and when he rests the Bulls bring in Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, a 6-8, 243-pound junior who is the team's best 3-point shooter at 41 percent.
The only starter shorter than 6-6 is freshman point guard Anthony Collins, who averages 8.5 points and 5.3 assists.