As fans grumble, Bulls grind onward
He has stood at the intersection of Frustration and Furor before. Even got kicked to the curb once. It's part of Stan Heath's universe.
These days, fan unrest again is piling up in that universe like snow in Secaucus.
"That's the nature of the business," USF's seventh-year coach said Friday, less than 48 hours after the Bulls' near-historic 83-40 loss at Connecticut. "I can understand frustration; I'm
frustrated. I'm mad at myself, too. ... I've heard that before."
In his 13th season as a Division I coach, Heath has learned how to cope in such situations.
He'll keep watching film and working out, perhaps say a few additional prayers, talk to wife Ramona, maybe reach out to a colleague or two. Mostly, he'll remain poised and stay the course.
It's precisely what the Bulls didn't do Wednesday in Hartford, when they came three points shy of matching the biggest losing margin in program history. Heath didn't watch the tape; the game replayed incessantly in his 49-year-old mind.
"It was just embarrassing," fifth-year senior Victor Rudd said.
"I know that we forced plays in the lane that had no chance, no plan, got shots blocked," Heath said. "Our offense was their best offense at the end of the day...and it just deflated our morale."
Now, as Heath stands at his proverbial intersection, his team also is at a crossroads.
The Bulls (12-13) are coming off consecutive ugly losses, including last weekend's 79-69 home loss to Rutgers. As a result, their NIT hopes and a conference tournament first-round bye are
flickering. In Saturday's rematch against UCF, will they respond or regress further?
"We can definitely (respond)," Rudd said. "Players can play better. ... This is a rivalry game, so we want to get this win. We beat this team once (in overtime on Feb. 5) and we want to do it again. It could really help us."
Struggling to dig its way out of mediocrity is hardly what Heath projected four months ago.
The best signing class of his tenure was embarking on preseason drills, and the post-operative swelling in point guard Anthony Collins' knee was of minimal concern.
But Collins hasn't appeared in a conference game. For that matter, neither has the Bulls' shooting touch. USF enters Saturday's game last among all Division I teams in 3-point efficiency (25.1 percent).
"I was expecting to have a veteran point guard out there that can match up against these elite guards," Heath said.
"Our guys are playing hard, they're trying, but that piece is a huge piece. I mean, I can't imagine the Denver Broncos without Peyton Manning. But at the same time you can't just look at that.
"We have not shot the ball well, and I think we have a couple of guys who can make some shots, but it just has not happened, for whatever reason."
As a result, the calls for Heath's job intensify.
"I've heard that before," said Heath, 100-123 in six-plus seasons at USF.
"I'm sure they're upset, just like I'm sure they were patting me on the back two years ago (when USF reached the NCAA Tournament). I haven't changed a whole lot, but I know that's a part of the business."
Of more pressing concern is trying to forge resilience in a group that displayed little Wednesday.
When the clangs came in succession at UConn, the Bulls melted down. For the first time in more than three years, no USF player reached double figures. Rudd, the team's top scorer, finished with six points. Collectively, USF had more turnovers (15) than field goals (12).
The effort so disgusted Rudd, when he arrived back in Tampa after a completely silent three-hour flight home, he remained awake until 7 a.m.
"I usually go back and watch games after, but I couldn't even watch it," Rudd said. "My team
was trying to get me going. They needed me to do something, and I felt like I started trying
too hard, got my shot blocked, missed some shots."
Yet Heath and Rudd insist disgust can be as fleeting as a headcold. The Bulls have rebounded before, upsetting SMU at home two days after a 22-point loss at Memphis. Can they surge again, or swoon? A despondent constituency wants to know.
"We've got to hold on to the rope, that's the part we're going to find out," Heath said. "Are we resilient? ... This has probably been as tough a stretch as we've had all year long, so now we really find out the character of who we are."