Unselfish Bulls ready for tournament play
Most college basketball coaches are happy to have one go-to guy on their roster. South Florida coach Stan Heath likes to think he has at least seven of them.
There are no stars in Heath’s lineup, which features seven players who average from 6.8 to 9.6 points per game and none who score more than 10 a night. But the newly crowned Big East Coach of the Year has found a way to make his unconventional and often-unremarkable rotation work.
As a result, his 20-13 Bulls — a perennial Big East hanger-on that went 23-81 in conference play before this year — have completed a long-awaited transformation and secured their first NCAA tournament berth since 1992 after the most impressive regular season in school history.
"History kind of shows that different teams have succeeded different ways," said Ron Anderson, Jr., who averages 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for the Bulls. "A lot of times nowadays, people are more interested in the flashiness of a game or how high somebody's jumping or how many blocked shots you can get. But when it's all said and done, it all boils down to fundamentals."
The Bulls open Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET in a First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio, against California. The winner advances as a No. 12 seed to play fifth-seeded Temple on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
Heath has every reason to believe that USF’s unselfishness, balance and tough defense — Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared playing USF to getting a root canal — will outweigh its lack of star power, not just Wednesday but throughout the tournament.
"We're going to have to sacrifice individualistic play. We're going to have to sacrifice scoring. We're going to have to build our team around toughness, defense and team play," Heath said Tuesday in Dayton. "And as a player you say to yourself, ‘Do I want to win or do I want to lose?’ ”
"You have to make that decision, and those guys made a decision that winning was the most important thing ahead of individualistic things, and that's why we are where we are."
South Florida’s scoring rarely comes in large doses, but it always comes from different angles, making the Bulls difficult to plan for and even harder to defend once the game starts.
USF has had eight different players either lead or share the team lead in scoring in a game this season: Augustus Gilchrist (seven times); Anderson (six); Anthony Collins (six); Victor Rudd (five); Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (four); Jawanza Poland (three); Hugh Robertson (three); and Blake Nash (one).
Additionally, the Bulls have only six 20-point performances in 33 games this season (two by Rudd and one each from Collins, Fitzpatrick, Gilchrist and Poland) and only Rudd has scored 30 points in a game — a 30-point outburst in a November victory over Marist.
South Florida has had a player score one-third or more of the team’s points in only five games, and the Bulls have had their leading scorer account for less than 20 percent of the team’s overall output twice this year.
The Bulls could have one guy take the lead — like USF star Dominique Jones did from 2008-10, when he averaged 17.1, 18.1 and 21.4 points per game — but South Florida had only one winning season during that span, and Heath would rather see his team spread the wealth and win than stand around and watch one guy dominate in defeat.
"If they're going to put the energy and effort and really play out there together, they're going to have a chance to move along," Heath said of his team. "If all of a sudden someone sees the light come on (and says) ‘I want to be the star and get 20 points,’ (and) they want to do it a different way, they want to give the effort, then you're going to have a short trip here."
South Florida’s even distribution isn’t limited to scoring, either. The Bulls also show equal balance on the boards, where they’ve had five different players lead the team in rebounding this season — Anderson (11 times), Fitzpatrick (10), Gilchrist (seven), Rudd (six) and Robertson (three). Their top five rebounders average between 4.3 and 6.6 boards per game.
There’s an argument to be made against teams like South Florida, one that says that teams without a go-to scorer have no one who can step up in crunch time. But before you write off the Bulls’ tournament chances, consider this:
In last year’s tournament, the first to include the First Four round, a similarly overlooked team with an up-and-coming coach and no true star made its way from the First Four to the Final Four when Virginia Commonwealth shocked fans and ruined brackets all across the country.
The 11th-seeded Rams earned a spot in the Field of 64 with a victory over USC. They then shocked Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the national semifinal — and they did it with balance. Four key players averaged from 10.4 to 15.7 points per game. During the tournament, VCU had three different players take control and lead the team in scoring in a game.
"I want them to understand teams like VCU from last year were in the same situation as us," Heath said. "I want them to know you're in a select field of 68 teams that have legitimate chance to win the national championship, and anything can happen."
The Bulls may be boring, but they’re effective. They don’t run the type of whiz-bang offense that other underrated teams, such as Creighton or Davidson or Wichita State or BYU — another First Four team — have to offer, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Bulls, who were 3-13 in Big East play a year ago, finished 12-6 in conference this season and picked up wins over both Cincinnati and Louisville — the two finalists in last week’s Big East tournament.
Additionally, USF had a strong showing against No. 1 seed Syracuse, which led the Bulls by only one point with less than five minutes left Feb. 22 at the Carrier Dome.
"This year being that nobody's averaging double figures, everybody's coming in (and) knows their role," said Anderson, who reached the NCAA tournament during his freshman year while at Kansas State.
"We had to become a team and we had to build through the course of the year, and I think that's what makes coming back to the tournament, especially for my senior year, that much more sweet — knowing that the road to get here had its challenges and we overcame a lot."
South Florida has never, in the history of its program, had a leading scorer average fewer than 10 points per game, but it also never has reached this level of success. Still, though, it remains to be seen whether the Bulls’ unselfishness and even distribution can lead to tournament success.
But if VCU taught us anything last year, it’s that a First Four appearance is hardly a death sentence, star power doesn’t necessarily breed success and a little bit of balance can go a long way.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner