Stan Heath did more with less better than any other coach in Big East this past season at USF. (Photo courtesy of Voodoo Five)
Before I go any further, let me preface this by saying that I picked the University of South Florida to finish last in the Big East back in October the same way many other people did. How were we to know that the Bulls would end up advancing to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament? All speculation aside, USF truly was the Cinderella story in the Big East for the second time in three years; with Stan Heath, who in my five years has earned the distinction of being my favorite interview and the nicest guy you can ever cover, earning well-deserved conference Coach of the Year honors.
Maybe the Sun Dome should be renovated again next season. With the Bulls forced to play most of their home games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum while their on-campus venue was being fixed, USF managed a 14-2 record between the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the University of Tampa. Their opening contest in the conference, a 60-57 loss to UConn that was eerily reminiscent of their overtime loss back in 2009, should have served as the foreshadowing of what was to come. From that moment on, the Bulls won twelve of sixteen to vault themselves into the NCAA Tournament field (at least in this writer's opinion) going into the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. Yet here were the experts (I won't name names for the sake of being professional, but anyone and everyone who knows USF knows who the leader of this brigade is) maligning the Bulls' less than spectacular nonconference record, stating it would preclude them from a spot in the field of 68. They should have known better.
After nearly defeating Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, head coach Stan Heath remarked that his team's style of play wasn't the most attractive, but that beauty was "in the eye of the beholder." California found that out in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, when USF led 36-13 at halftime. Victories over the Golden Bears and Temple before a loss to Ohio University got USF to a 22-14 record that hardly anyone expected would be the end result for a team still searching for a happy medium after Dominique Jones declared for the NBA two years prior.
What makes this team even more impressive was that the Bulls were a cast of role players by and large. Think about this: USF did not have a single player averaging more than ten points per game, with senior big man Augustus Gilchrist (9.5 points per game) serving as the team leader. When Gilchrist wasn't getting it done, two new faces made their presence known in a big way. Swingman Victor Rudd, an Arizona State transfer, made his first impact by singlehandedly defeating St. John's back in January; while freshman Anthony "AC" Collins, despite being a rookie, solidified his reputation as one of the best point guards in the Big East by averaging over five assists to go with nine points per contest. Junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick blossomed with his extra playing time, becoming a sharpshooter off the bench with his 41 percent clip from beyond the arc, with Shaun Noriega and Blake Nash providing valuable offense in reserve roles as well. Hugh Robertson and Ron Anderson Jr. may not have always filled up the box score, but both came to be known as high percentage shot takers that always made sure they were in the right place at the right time. Then there was Jawanza Poland, who for all the missed layups, endeared himself to Bulls fans with his high-octane style.
Four players make their way to Tampa next season in a recruiting class that is headlined by swingman Musa Abdul-Aleem, a junior college transfer from Georgia. The Bulls also get Waverly Austin should he be declared eligible, as well as forward Zach LeDay and shooting guard Javontae Hawkins, ranked 23rd at his position by Rivals.com. Stan Heath's son Jordan, who was injured prior to the season and did not play, may also rejoin the team. All in all, USF may not be the most exciting team to watch, but the Bulls got the job done. Next season will hopefully provide more of the same. If nothing else, all those (myself inclusive) who failed to take the Bulls seriously this season now have something to steer them in a positive direction if they make the same mistake again.