Alan Dell

Bulls must continue to build off strong season

The University of South Florida basketball team doesn’t have time to feel sorry for itself. There is too much to do rather than lament over its NIT loss to N.C. State.

The program is at a crossroads. It’s facing the most critical offseason in its 39-year history, which will determine whether it continues its ascent from a basketball wasteland.

Off the court, measures are being taken to assure the foundation built this year is on firm footing.

Recent ground breaking on the $30 million, 50,000-square foot Pam and Les Muma practice complex puts the program a bit closer to Syracuse and Connecticut along with the other Big East Conference schools, whose facilities dwarf the league have-nots.

A Ph.D. in basketball is not necessary to see what ails this team the most. From beyond the arc, this looked like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

As a team, the Bulls shot 28 percent on 3-point attempts. After Dominique Jones at 31 percent, the USF backcourt look liked it needed to spend another semester at the shooting range.

Chris Howard (28 percent), Mike Mercer (20 percent) and Anthony Crater (19 percent) misfired so much from long range, it makes you wonder why head coach Stan Heath didn’t take away their license to bear arms.

Howard and Mercer are gone, leaving Crater, who was able to convert only 9 of 48 attempts from downtown. There’s help on the way, though Big East defenders can make guided missiles go awry.

Those shooting woes make one wonder how Heath was able to guide this team to a 20-13 record, including 9-9 in the Big East. There is also the matter of toughness and savvy the front court needs to develop, but that weakness is not as glaring.

Despite the improved record, the Bulls’ 3-point shooting percentage went down from 29.7 to 28 percent, which was the worst in the Big East. USF was only one of two league teams (Cincinnati) to shoot under 30 percent from beyond the arc.

The Bulls shot even worse from long range in conference games. connecting on only 25 percent of their 3-point attempts, which put them at the bottom of the Big East.

Heath’s No. 1 project this offseason is to find a player or two who can shoot the trey and play Big East defense; the first could be easier than the second, despite this season’s scatter gun results.

He might have a few people on the bench who can meet that requirement in freshmen guards Shawn Noriega from North Port and Mike Burwell. There is help on the way with several recruits, including Shedrick Haynes, who played two years at Palmetto, one at what was then known as Manatee Community College.

Haynes could be Heath’s diamond in the rough. He is not a Blue Chipper only because he had to fight off a serious knee injury and play in relative obscurity while he recovered.

A big-time shooter or two will help with another problem that is also tied into attracting big-time players. The Bulls’ average home attendance was 4,976, which was the lowest in the Big East. It’s a number recruits will surely hear about from teams going after the same players.

Everyone connected with the program is hoping Jones comes back for his final season instead of opting for the draft. But if the Bulls don’t find some long-range bombers to spread opposing defenses and open things up for the 6-4 guard, he might be better off leaving.