We Hardly Knew Ye: South Florida’s Regression Has BegunPosted by mlemaire on November 27th, 2012
Coming off a season in which they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament games and finished sixth in one of the premier conferences in the country, hopes were high for South Florida this year with some even predicting the Bulls would find their way into the NCAA Tournament again this season. But now, six games into the season, it hasn’t taken very long for all the air to rush out of the USF balloon. Despite playing one of the easiest schedules in all of Division I college basketball to date, the Bulls have stumbled to a 4-2 record and needed a late rally Monday night to put away Stetson, a mediocre team from the Atlantic Sun that, ironically, may be the Bulls’ best opponent so far. The team’s two losses are unsightly as well. A loss to Central Florida in the season opener could be overlooked, but losing to Western Michigan, 58-53, has many folks flinging themselves from the bandwagon as quickly as they jumped on.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, the schedule is really only starting to pick up. Georgia comes to town Friday for the SEC/Big East Challenge and after that coach Stan Heath and company head to Stillwater where they will play the balanced and extremely talented Oklahoma State Cowboys. After that, they will also have to get through an underrated George Mason team and a rematch at Central Florida around the turn of the new year, and if the Bulls don’t start to pick it up immediately, their NCAA Tournament hopes could be in serious jeopardy before Big East play even begins.
The reasons behind the team’s struggles aren’t difficult to pinpoint. The Bulls have never been a good offensive team under Heath. Last season they were able to mask their offensive struggles with excellent defense (USF finished No. 13 in adjusted defensive efficiency). But this season, while the offense has basically replicated the same efficiency as last season, the defense, whether because of lack of effort or lack of length and size without Ron Anderson Jr. and Augustus Gilchrist, has regressed badly, and it could have been worse if they had been playing better competition. The regression is disappointing because even without Anderson and Gilchrist, the Bulls still have the length (albeit not a lot of true size) and athleticism across the roster to be a solid defensive team, especially against supposedly overmatched mid-major opponents. Some of the defensive issues can be attributed to early season growing pains and but more can be attributed stark rebounding concerns and ineffective on-ball pressure.
The Bulls have combined to allow 24 offensive rebounds in their two losses so far and have been badly outrebounded in both games. They also rank near the bottom of the country in defensive turnover percentage, block percentage, and steal percentage. USF has never liked to score in transition and their offense isn’t elite, so they rely on turnovers and pressure to create points. But with half-court sets that have been just as stagnant and a dearth of scoring opportunities off turnovers, South Florida’s offensive output has suffered, and it seems clear that if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament, they will need to do it on the defensive end of the floor.
The good news is that the season is still early and all of those aforementioned lengthy athletes will have time to improve their communication and effort on the defensive end and the team has time to improve its defense. The bad news is that their offense is still tied to the ability and health of dynamic point guard Anthony Collins, and the sophomore has really struggled to get going early.
Collins was one of the best freshmen in the conference last season, averaging 9.0 points, 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game, and nearly every pundit paying any attention to Big East basketball picked him as a breakout candidate to watch. Things haven’t gone according to plan, however, as Collins has battled a calf injury that kept him out of Monday’s game against the Hatters. And while Collins’ assist rate has improved (8.2 APG), his shooting percentage and his free-throw percentage are down and he hasn’t been the offensive dynamo South Florida needs if it expects to keep pace with its opponents offensively.
Collins is quite simply the only player on the roster truly capable of creating his own shot, and the combination of his quick first step and excellent passing ability makes the whole team tough to defend when he knifes into the lane. But the Houston native can’t utilize that skill set when he has a gimpy leg, and that may be part of the reason why he hasn’t embraced the fact that he is the team’s primary offensive option.
Despite the Bulls’ disheartening start, there is still reason to hold out hope for an in-season turnaround. For starters, Collins’ calf will eventually heal and his play will likely improve because of it. Secondly, Heath’s rotation is comprised primarily of veterans who one would reasonably expect to buckle down as the season really gets going. And finally, aside for three or four teams atop the conference, the Big East is as soft and mediocre in the middle as it has ever been. Last season South Florida feasted on the conference’s weakest teams en route to 12 conference victories, and the possibility of doing that again remains a possibility. At the very least, the Bulls should be able to stay close in most of their conference match-ups.
It is far too early to say all is lost for South Florida, but that doesn’t mean it is too early to be very worried either. The Bulls have been the laughingstock of the conference and have been considered an afterthought by opponents and their fans for the better part of the last decade. All of that started to change with last season’s breakthrough campaign. It would be a shame for South Florida and its fans to see all of that respectability tossed away less than one year later.