Heath heads into fifth USF season with optimism
TAMPA -- Stan Heath will have an unproven point guard this season, he'll be dangerously thin in the post, and his team will play its home games in three different arenas, all off campus as the Sun Dome undergoes major renovations.
But there is an optimism in Heath as he heads to New York today for the Big East's preseason media gathering, even though his Bulls are sure to be picked in the bottom quarter of the league, where they've finished in all but one of their six seasons in the conference.
"We've got a long way to go, but I really like where we are," Heath said Tuesday. "In the five years I've been here, this is the best offensive team I've had, in terms of being able to score, pass, make plays. They're playing unselfish, which is a big key."
If things go right -- if senior forward Augustus Gilchrist continues to show the maturity and attitude, if versatile transfer Victor Rudd can make the splash Heath hopes to see, if the point guards can hide their youth -- than Heath hopes for a season more like 2009-10, when guard Dominique Jones led the Bulls to a 9-9 mark and ninth-place finish in the Big East, earning a trip to the Postseason NIT.
Rudd, a forward from Arizona State, added 20 pounds of muscle during his season off, and Heath saw strong summers in guard Shaun Noriega and forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who should see increased minutes as juniors. Athletic guard Jawanza Poland could be out until December with a back injury, but Heath is encouraged about the team that will line up at the St. Pete Times Forum for its nine Big East home games. His optimism starts with chemistry, forged early and late during long days in the team's new Muma Center practice facility.
"Our chemistry has been phenomenal. I've been exceptionally pleased with it," Heath said. "The guys paid some dues during the summer. They were up at 6, 7 in the morning, running, doing things behind the scenes to get themselves ready to go. They really built a bond. Some of the ups and downs they went through last season, they don't want to go through that. It's going to take chemistry and camaraderie to come together."
GETTING BACK: USF's women's team ended a seven-year postseason run last year, struggling to a 12-19 record and a 3-13 mark in Big East play, but Jose Fernandez has an experienced team motivated by what they weren't able to do a year ago.
"I think our team knows last year was very disappointing," Fernandez said. "Especially for the returners, to be the first team in eight years not to go to a postseason, they understand that. I think that was a big reason why the commitment level was where it was at this spring and summer. This team believes they can be good, and we believe it also. We have a lot of different pieces on this team. It's putting the puzzle together and having the chemistry and fortitude and leadership that brings you through an entire season."
His top scorer, senior guard Andrea Smith, is still recovering from ACL surgery and hasn't participated in contact during practice. Still, she'll represent the team in New York this week, as will junior KaNeisha Saunders, battling for the starting point guard job. Junior forward standout Inga Orekhova will be eligible one game into the Big East season, but Fernandez hopes he has an established starting lineup after many different looks last season.
"When you see a team that has different lineups throughout the year, you're searching for something, or you have injuries," he said. "Hopefully, we're not doing that and you have a consistent lineup. I like where we're at right now, 10 practices in. ... If everything falls into place and everybody's healthy and on the floor, we should have a very good basketball season."
THIS AND THAT: USF men's soccer is as high as No. 8 in the national rankings after a 3-2 overtime win at Syracuse on Saturday. The Bulls have their final regular-season home matches ahead with Villanova on Saturday and Cincinnati next Wednesday, but the Bulls are now in good position to open the NCAA Tournament at home. ... USF women's soccer was eliminated from contention for the Big East tournament this weekend, with a 2-5-3 connference record entering the Bulls' final match at Marquette on Saturday. USF hasn't lost any match by more than a goal, but a run of three straight shutouts against them took the Bulls out of contention. ... Saturday's homecoming football game against Cincinnati has a "Bring a Kid to the Game" promotion, where fans can go to local Wal-Marts this week and get a code to redeem at Ticketmaster.com for a free ticket for fans 17 and under, as well as discounts for other family members. For information, visit GoUSFbulls.com.