The University of South Florida is a fairly young school, founded in 1956. Younger still is its sports programs: they didn’t begin playing football until 1997, while the basketball program got its start in 1971. With the joining of the Big East conference in 2005, the athletic department embarked on a whole new era for their school, and with Stan Heath signing up as the basketball coach in 2007, the new beginnings were complete. Along with new programs come new records and new heroes, and while the Bulls failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season, they had inarguably their best season ever, posting a .500 record in the Big East and a 20-13 overall record, huge steps forward from the days when they were regularly in the bottom bunch of the conference standings. Aside from saying goodbye to the best team in the program’s history, the also say goodbye to likely the best player in its history: Dominique Jones. Jones left after a junior season during which he averaged 21.4 point per game to pursue a career in the NBA (he was selected with the 25th pick), but still leaves the program as its fifth all-time leading scorer, tenth on the all-time assist list and seventh in steals, as well as having posted the highest single game point total, when he dropped 46 on Providence in January.

But it is not just Jones that the Bulls will have to replace, as two other backcourt starters have graduated: point guard Chris Howard and off-guard Mike Mercer, another nearly 20 points of offense between them. Junior Anthony Crater, a transfer from Ohio State who spent last year as Howard’s understudy, will take over the lead guard role, but his running mate remains to be seen, although there are plenty of candidates. The two returnees with a chance to grab the off-guard spot are sophomore Shaun Noriega and Mike Burwell, neither of whom got a whole lot of run last season, but both of whom have reputations as deadly shooter. Noriega in particular has great range and the trust of the coach, but will need to get stronger and better defensively in order to get consistent minutes. More likely, one of three incoming junior college transfers will have the inside track on replacing Jones: 6-0 Shedrick Haynes, 6-4 Jawanza Poland or 6-5 Hugh Robertson. All three are excellent athletes who can penetrate and cause problems in the lane, but none have the reputation as great shooters. Likely some combination of the newcomers and the dead-eye returnees will fill Jones’ large shoes by committee. Backing up Crater at the point will be incoming freshman Lavonte Dority, a strong and physical pure point guard. Between Crater and Dority, neither is anything approaching a good jumpshooter, but both have the ability to be strong floor generals and pesky defenders.

The strength for the Bulls will be their frontcourt, and Heath claims that he’ll match this frontcourt against anyone’s in the country. Well, the fact is, he’ll have to, so at least that much makes sense, but the four-man rotation here is pretty solid. Gus Gilchrist is a 6-8 junior power forward with a somewhat checkered past, at least in terms of his commitment to schools. He originally signed with Virginia Tech, but was then released from that scholarship, after which he signed with Maryland, only to decide to transfer out of there before playing even a minute, eventually winding up at USF. Last season he missed 15 games due to a severe ankle sprain, and after returning late in the season, was just never the same player again. However, he still averaged 13 points and six rebounds for the season, numbers which should improve this year as he will likely be the go-to player offensively. He needs to get more aggressive on the glass, but is a versatile four-man, with a good stroke from three and an excellent midrange jumper. Center Jarrid Famous started 30 games for the Bulls in his junior season, and averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in just under 30 minutes. He is not a particularly effective defender, but is capable of getting on the glass on both ends, and creating points out of hard work. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick fell into the starting lineup when Gilchrist got hurt last season and was decent, notching over four rebounds a game, but he’ll need to improve his offensive game. And the fourth member of the Bulls bigs is junior Ron Anderson, a transfer from Kansas State who has slimmed down from over 300 pounds to a svelte 250. He is a surprisingly skilled player with solid post moves and is a very good passer for a big man, but his biggest contributions will come in defending the post and hitting the glass.

After those four, there is just nothing for the Bulls up front, as 6-10 center Waverly Austin, who had committed to USF, failed to qualify academically and is going the JuCo route, but Heath will have to find a balance between getting those four players on the floor as often as possible (since they are likely the Bulls best four players) and finding a way to get them some rest and keep them out of foul trouble. It is possible the Bulls could start a front line of Famous in the middle, Anderson at power forward and Gilchrist at the three, with Robertson getting some minutes at the three off the bench.

For this Bulls team to match the success of their predecessor, Heath will need to get Gilchrist to take the next step in his development, with Famous and Anderson as secondary options. Having one of the young guards step up and take over the scoring guard role would be a huge bonus too, since it is unlikely that Crater will provide much scoring punch. While the Bull frontcourt could keep it in quite a few games, the lack of a proven backcourt looks like a critical missing element on this squad and it is not unlikely that we’ll see the USF basketball program sink back down towards the bottom of the standings in the Big East again this season.

 


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