Picked to finish 14th in Big East preseason poll, Stan Heath has USF tied for fourth after home win over St. John's. (Photo courtesy of the University of South Florida)
Every year since the conference's 2006 restructuring, there is always one team that finishes far ahead of anyone's expectations in the Big East. Cincinnati and St. John's were the darlings of the Big East last season. Marquette claimed the title in 2009; and the 2010 Cinderella story is among the finalists to earn this distinction for a second time, after a season in which the premature departure of the program's star player appeared to set it back after just arriving in the conference a few years ago.
When Dominique Jones was at the University of South Florida, the dynamic shooting guard was a one-man show during the Bulls' run to a 20-win season and an appearance in the NIT. When he decided to forgo his senior season shortly after that postseason trip to enter the NBA draft, Jones was a first-round selection who eventually won an NBA championship last season as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Needless to say, his presence was sorely missed by his former team; as USF struggled to a 10-23 record that included a mere three wins in conference play, not counting their upset Big East tournament win against a Villanova team that hit a downward spiral to close the year.
At Big East media day this past October, I had the pleasure of speaking to USF coach Stan Heath; who despite his team's lack of recent success, has managed to remain positive and uphold his status as one of the most pleasant coaches and interview subjects in the conference. Heath admitted that last season was tough trying to adjust to life without Jones, who he referred to as "kind of a lifeline to our players" during his tenure in Tampa; but just nineteen games into this season, the Bulls have already surpassed last year's win totals both overall and in conference play after their most recent contest, a 64-49 win over St. John's this past Wednesday night.
Even in year two without Jones, USF is still going through a transition of sorts. Their on-campus home court at the Sun Dome is undergoing renovations, forcing the Bulls to play their home games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum; where they are 6-1 this season, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of reigning national champion Connecticut. However, the defeat to the Huskies was only a three-point loss, similar to the game in which USF played UConn hard throughout in the 2007-08 season only to lose by one point in overtime thanks to late-game heroics on the part of UConn guard Craig Austrie. In addition, the Bulls have battled injuries throughout the year; with guards Anthony Collins and Jawanza Poland missing significant amounts of time at one point or another. "It's a team that really wasn't together for the early part of the season," said Heath on a Big East coaches' conference call a week ago. "Now we are."
Collins; along with Arizona State transfer Victor Rudd, have teamed with incumbents such as forwards Augustus Gilchrist and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick to vault USF from their 14th-place prediction in the conference's preseason poll into a three-way tie for fourth that would give the Bulls a first-round bye in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden if the season ended today. With the close loss against UConn, coupled with an upset win over then-No. 24 Seton Hall, USF is currently one of many teams on the bubble at 11-8 overall and 4-2 inside the Big East. With DePaul, Marquette and Providence next up on the Bulls' ledger before their road meeting with Georgetown on February 4th, it is not inconceivable to think USF could enter that showdown with John Thompson III's Hoyas 6-3 in conference play before taking the court at the Verizon Center in a game that could complete the comeback.
It may have taken two years to awaken a sleeping giant once again, but what makes this even more impressive is that USF has done it all without a particular dominating player. Jawanza Poland, the team's scoring leader, averages just 11.1 points per game after missing the first eleven games due to injury. Augustus Gilchrist is the only other double-figure scorer on the Bulls' roster; but USF has picked up contributions from their role players to the tune of a unit that makes up for their conservative offense with a defense that is the best in the Big East, yielding just 58 points per game while only allowing 31 rebounds, trailing only Pittsburgh in that category.
For a coach like Stan Heath, this deserved success is a long time coming.