AAC Team Previews: South Florida BullsPosted by Will Tucker on November 8th, 2013
Our team preview style has been heavily cribbed from the microsite writers over in the Pac-12. We love them and assume they would take our attempt at loose imitation as flattery and not plagiarism.
Strengths: Length. This season’s roster features 10 players listed at 6’5” or taller, and seven of them are likely to either start or play major minutes. While height alone won’t win this team any games, its improved length and athleticism are exactly the properties necessary to successfully run the stingy, opportunistic style of basketball Stan Heath teaches. Those upgrades are most apparent among Heath’s younger players. Scoring 10 or more points five times in league play, 6’7” rising sophomore Zach LeDay showed considerable promise in the latter portion of his freshman campaign, culminating in a 13-point, 15-rebound, five-block performance in his first and only Big East Tournament game. Classmate Javontae Hawkins (6’5”, 202 pounds) is a talented scorer who is likely to move into a starting role in the Bulls’ backcourt, provided he can beat out former JuCo transfer Musa Abdul-Aleem (6’5”, 221), a deep threat whom CBS Sports recently dubbed one of the country’s “under the radar” breakout players.
Complementing those talented sophomore and productive veterans Victor Rudd and Anthony Collins, USF adds the most promising recruiting class in the program’s history. In particular, Stan Heath will benefit from the addition of four-star post players John Egbunu and Chris Perry. Egbunu should start from day one, while Perry could quickly earn a significant role based on his rebounding prowess alone. Heath also went out and solved his problems with point guard depth by adding junior college guard Corey Allen Jr., who looks every bit the serviceable floor general the Bulls lacked last year any time Collins stepped off the court.
Weaknesses: Offense. Mustering just under 59 points per game last season, the Bulls were last in the Big East in scoring by a wide margin. In fact, among 345 Division I teams, only 15 averaged fewer points than Stan Heath’s squad in 2012-13, and only 12 shot a lower field goal percentage. That anemic offense suffers further from the loss of three of its top five scorers as Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (9.9 PPG), Shaun Noriega (8.4 PPG) and Jawanza Poland (8.4 PPG) all subsequently graduated. Moreover, the stout defense that carried Heath’s team to the 2012 NCAA Tournament was puzzlingly absent last season as the Bulls slid from #4 to #121 in defensive efficiency. They struggled to keep opponents off the offensive glass last season, collecting only 66 percent of available defensive rebounds, while allowing them to shoot 42.2 percent from the field: a deadly combination. Rudd was the only USF player to grab more than four defensive rebounds per game last season, with starting center Toarlyn Fitzpatrick managing a paltry average of 3.6 per contest. Even when the Bulls rebounded well, as in their final game in the Big East, their offensive shortcomings were on full display, shooting 24.2 percent and scoring 42 points in an overtime loss to Seton Hall.
Schedule: The Bulls play a decent non-conference slate that presents both several opportunities for quality wins and several opportunities for embarrassing losses. Last November saw unexpected stumbles at home to UCF and Western Michigan that led everyone to dismiss the Bulls after four games. This time around, the Bulls will comfortably tee up on overmatched Tennessee Tech, Bethune-Cookman and Stetson at home in the first month. A trip to Bowling Green on November 15 is the only possible trap they’ll encounter before hosting USA Today and RTC Preseason Player of the Year Marcus Smart and #8 Oklahoma State in the Sun Dome. Things won’t get much easier in December, with a three-day turnaround between a visit to George Mason and a home test against NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent Alabama. Home games versus Florida Gulf Coast and Mississippi State, and a dangerous non-conference finale at Bradley, present the Bulls’ last opportunities to build a quality resume before New Year’s Eve. The schedule sets up fairly well for them once league play starts, with the only real meat-grinder coming in the week from January 18-26, when they’ll face Louisville and Cincinnati for the first times before a return trip to Memphis.
If Everything Goes Right: Anthony Collins is the one who puts it all together, and his team’s offensive efficiency benefits immensely from his ability to help ease the learning curve for USF’s freshmen. Victor Rudd focuses on his offensive strengths and becomes more judicious in launching the three, especially now that he’s surrounded by a few additional scoring threats in the backcourt. Most importantly, South Florida gets back to playing the sound defense that nearly got them to a Sweet Sixteen two years ago. With a true center and as much athleticism as they have in their frontcourt, the Bulls become one of the few dominant rebounding teams in a guard-heavy AAC. They emerge from non-conference play 10-2 with a couple of quality wins, and acquit themselves admirably in league play, going 11-7 and finishing in the top five in the new AAC. With wins over some respectable opponents like George Mason and FGCU, a couple of upsets against top-tier AAC teams like Cincinnati or UConn, and a good showing in their conference tournament, South Florida makes a surprising return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If Everything Goes Wrong: As good as their roster looks on paper, it doesn’t click yet. Despite their size and athleticism, Egbunu and Perry lack the polished offensive skills to contribute where they’re most needed. Collins, indispensable though he remains, still doesn’t grow into the true star many have expected him to become since his auspicious freshman season. Victor Rudd tries to do too much on offense, and his team continues to not do enough on defense. The Bulls are playing catch-up as they enter conference play with losses to Bowling Green, Oklahoma State, George Mason, Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast –– dropping the latter three consecutively. They limp through conference play, trading losses with the bottom half of the league without managing to notch a win against Louisville, UConn, Memphis or Cincinnati. Getting swept by in-state rival UCF and finishing ninth or 10th in the league caps a nightmarish year of transition.
What Will Happen: Those with an intimate knowledge of this USF program have scoffed at the preseason polls ranking this team among the dregs of the league, and for good reason. This year’s AAC is awkward and transient and indeterminate in ways that kind of resemble the uncomfortable style of play in which Stan Heath’s teams have thrived. So it seems fitting that the Bulls should find ways to survive and scrap their way out of the conference cellar this year. They likely won’t finish in the top half of the league, but sixth place and a respectable postseason is definitely in play. Wherever they end up, fans will most likely look back on this season as a step in the right direction.