Commentary | Heath forms brotherhood for USF Bulls

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 29, 2012 

Only one player is averaging double figures, and he barely makes it at an even 10 points per game. Everyone else is under nine.

On most college basketball teams, those numbers would cause anarchy.

For the USF men, they have created a brotherhood.

It’s a reason the Bulls are playing the biggest game in program history tonight for the second time in four days.

This happens when you chase destiny and are only an arm’s length away.

The Bulls are at 18th-ranked Louisville, taking on a program Denny Crum raised from the cradle and Rick Pitino uplifted with all the modern-day amenities of a perennial national-title contender.

A victory for USF should get the Bulls their first NCAA tournament invite in 20 years, especially if they follow with a win over West Virginia in Saturday’s regular-season finale.

A loss would likely leave them on the outside looking in unless they reached the final of next week’s Big East tournament, which is a daunting task.

The best compliment USF has right now is that it is the team everybody wants to see, but nobody wants to play.

Unfortunately that won’t be enough.

The Big East has five teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and USF has lost to four (Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown and Notre Dame).

This is the Bulls’ last chance to knock down that door and demand admittance. Otherwise, they will be at the mercy of the goblins, ghosts and the selection committee’s idiosyncrasy.

Hoop lovers around these parts owe a debt of gratitude to USF head coach Stan Heath, who deserves plaudits for the courage he showed in accepting the position five years ago when USF basketball was considered a graveyard for coaches.

Remember the two coaches before Heath: Seth Greenberg couldn’t get out of town quick enough when he was offered the Virginia Tech job and after being fired by USF, Robert McCullum said he would never have come if he knew the program was going into the Big East.

Heath didn’t flinch, and right now he is the best hire in the eight-year tenure of USF athletic director Doug Woolard, considering the exposure his program gives the school.

When Heath arrived in 2007 trying to sell the USF men’s basketball program was like to trying to get people into a store with empty shelves.

USF is still last in attendance among the Big East schools, averaging just more than a paltry 3,000 fans per game.

But back then it was even worse trying to convince a blue-chip basketball player to come to USF and play before 7,000 empty seats every night when he could go to places like Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut and play in packed arenas before frenzied fans.

Heath had to mix and match, like someone opening a closet and trying to fit a pair of socks to an old pair of shoes and an outdated shirt to an oversized tie.

He mixed in some junior college players with guys who were unhappy at four-year schools and might be considered malcontents. It was a risk, but he knew it was the only way at the time.

The one missing piece was that catalyst point guard, who came straight from high school because he shared Heath’s vision.

He found that person in freshman Anthony Collins and things started to jell.

If you spend some time around Heath, you can understand why he has been successful. He is intelligent, very personable and has empathy for the players.

When Heath speaks, players want to listen, not out of fear, but because of trust.

In this era of highlight dunks and fast-paced basketball that excite nearly all college players, Heath sold defense and a slow-down offense that drains minutes off the clock.

If you play for him, it means you won’t put up gaudy offensive numbers and you might never make an ESPN highlight reel. But you might win on a team that a lot of people say has no right to be 18-11 (11-5 Big East).

Seven of the 13 players on the USF roster started their careers at another college, leading scorer Augustus Gilchrist at Maryland along with the next two highest scorers Victor Rudd (Arizona State) and Jawanza Poland (Hutchinson CC).

“There is a lot of trust in the locker room. They have their differences, but they iron things out and everybody has each other’s back,” Heath said. “That’s why we are having so much fun and enjoying each other right now. We started off the year when the bounces were going the other way, and we weathered the storm and now things are going our way. But sometimes you have to create your own breaks; that is what we are doing now.”

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.

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