Now, the buzz is palpable. Even an unpredicted late-season run, an improbable finish, seems possible for the University of South Florida Bulls.
Three weeks away from Selection Sunday, when the NCAA men's basketball tournament announces its 68-team field, USF (16-10, 9-4 Big East Conference) has begun to enter the conversation.
Which prompts the eternal hoops-centric question: Are coach Stan Heath's Bulls, picked for 14th place in their league, actually on the NCAA bubble?
From the nation's foremost experts, the people who project tournament brackets and analyze college basketball, there's an almost universal answer:
But check back in a week or so.
"Right now with South Florida, I've got to use the old cliché and say, 'Where's the beef?' " said ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who is considered the patron saint of bracketology, the study of NCAA tournament criteria and the projection of brackets. "It comes down to getting scalps, and they still need to get a few.
"No one really thinks South Florida is at the level of Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown or Louisville. I don't mean that to be insulting. It's just a fact. My gut says they're not good enough for the NCAA. They're more of an NIT team. I'd love to be proven wrong, and if they can get some quality wins, I'll be the first one to beat South Florida's drum. They simply need to beat more high-caliber teams.''
The Bulls, who haven't made the NCAA tournament since 1992, can't afford any clunkers. If USF wins tonight at Pittsburgh (15-12, 4-10), which is enduring uncharacteristic struggles, it sets up an intriguing four-game stretch run.
USF has road tests against No. 2-ranked Syracuse on Wednesday and No. 19 Louisville on Feb. 29. It has home matchups against Cincinnati on Feb. 26 and West Virginia on March 3, two teams hovering around the NCAA field periphery.
Then there's the X-factor. How many victories can USF earn during the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 6-10?
"South Florida has nine (Big East wins) in the bank,'' said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who once described the USF men's basketball job as the toughest in America. "If they can get a couple more, I think they definitely can get a bid.
"They're in position. Before the season started, if anyone would've said they'd be in position for a potential NCAA bid, I don't think anybody would've believed it. But now they're among a lot of teams that can either play their way into the tournament or play their way out. These games become vital . Absolutely vital, baby!''
Most observers agree the Bulls have drastically improved from last season's 23-loss campaign. Statistically, USF features the Big East's best defense. Freshman point guard Anthony Collins has made a major impact. And the Bulls, despite playing in downtown Tampa while the Sun Dome is renovated, have mounted a 13-1 home record.
Plus, USF went 6-5 to start the season without Jawanza Poland, who was recovering from a back injury, while Collins and Augustus Gilchrist also missed time. The NCAA selection committee considers the impact of injuries to key players.
But eight of USF's nine conference victories have come against teams with losing records in Big East games. Because of that, Jerry Palm, who projects NCAA brackets for CBSSports.com, remains skeptical of USF's viability. The Bulls probably must win four of their last five games to climb into his bubble picture, he said.
The Bulls have "played the weakest conference schedule of any Big East team'' and are "the poster child for why conference record and standings are irrelevant,'' Palm said. He described USF's league record as "the softest 9-4 ever.''
Mike DeCourcy, college basketball columnist at The Sporting News, first takes a big-picture view when assessing USF's season. Tonight, the Bulls are seeking a program-record 10th conference victory. USF needed four seasons to earn 10 league wins after joining the Big East in 2005-06.
"This is the second time in the past three years that USF has played respectably and competitively (in the Big East),'' DeCourcy said. "Given the gap that had to be closed, I'd say that's hugely positive.''
But it's still not enough to overcome USF's biggest problem.
"They've lost to just about every NCAA-caliber team they've played, including VCU, and they were only competitive in a handful of those,'' DeCourcy said. "The mitigating factor is that all but one of those came on the road. I don't think I've ever seen a team in a major conference this deep into the season where almost every quality opponent was a road game. It's just weird.
"They still get Cincinnati and West Virginia in their gym, and that certainly doesn't hurt. I doubt even winning both would be enough to completely transform the Bulls into a tournament team. They're either going to need to win on the road or do some serious damage in the Big East Tournament.''
There are definite opportunities for USF, according to Eamonn Brennan, who oversees ESPN.com's daily "Bubble Watch'' feature.
"When you dig into their record, you see a team that has mostly taken advantage of a really imbalanced Big East schedule,'' Brennan said. "The Bulls have feasted on (lower-level Big East teams). Throw in the losses to Auburn and Penn State and you've got a really shaky profile obscured by some solid computer numbers. It's a non-starter at this point.
"Hey, if USF wants to shock the world in Syracuse or Louisville, then we'd really be talking. Bottom line: They need good top-50 wins or the rap against their profile to date would merely be reinforced.''
Gary Parrish, college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com, said he doesn't expect USF to win at Syracuse or Louisville.
"They've mostly just beaten a bunch of bad teams, (but) that's good because that hasn't always been the case in Tampa,'' Parrish said. "The selection committee will be looking for quality wins, and USF doesn't have many at this moment. The positive is that the Bulls already have (nine) Big East wins, which is notable for this program.''
Heath generally agrees with the analysts, saying USF has held serve against most of its schedule, but failed to produce a truly landmark victory. The Bulls, he said, must continue to win — and win over the non-believers — a strategy that is shared in USF's locker room.
"Everybody else can do all the talking and ask all the questions,'' USF senior forward Ron Anderson Jr. said. "We're just going to keep playing basketball. When we don't have any more games to play, we can sit back and see where we are.''