Minutes shifting hands in Bulls' backcourt
TAMPA -- With each game, USF coach Stan Heath has a better sense of his team's strengths and weaknesses, and after a promising 5-2 start, he's shifting minutes in his backcourt to newcomers Anthony Collins and Blake Nash.
Collins, the freshman point guard from Houston, has made a splash in just two games off the bench, totaling 13 assists against just three turnovers, and Heath said Monday he'll get his first start Wednesday night as the Bulls play at Virginia Commonwealth. Nash, a sophomore junior college transfer who can play both guard positions, will make his second start, playing shooting guard but giving Heath another playmaker on the court.
"We're 5-0 when we don't turn the ball over ... we haven't lost a game when we're positive (in) assist-turnover ratio," Heath said Monday. "When you put Blake at the 2, you have two ballhandlers out there, it really helps you protect and take care of the ball and make plays. I really like the two-guard lineup. ... Until I see what I need to see from some of the other guys, I'm going to go with that lineup."
With their minutes rising -- Nash averaged 13.5 minutes in the first two games, but has gotten at least 24 minutes in each of the last five -- the role of point guard Lavonte Dority and shooting guard Shaun Noriega has diminished. Noriega's strength is as a 3-point shooter, but Nash has matched him in that category, going 9-for-25 while Noriega is just 8-for-23 this season. Swingman Hugh Robertson, the team's best defensive player, has seen his minutes decrease three games in a row, and another guard/forward, Victor Rudd, has been inconsistent, averaging 9.8 points in five games since a 30-point effort against Marist two weeks ago.
"I'd still like to get a little bit more from our wings," Heath said. "I think Vic's been a little bit on and off and I think he can do a lot more for us. I don't think Shaun's playing the way he's capable of playing. Neither is Hugh. They're doing things to help us, but I think there's still another level those guys can get to."
Dority, who averaged 27 minutes in the first three games, has averaged 13 in the last four, with just two assists in that span. As a whole, USF is getting strong play from its point guards -- in all of last season, starter Anthony Crater never had more than two assists in a game; Collins has four and two in his two games, and Nash had three against Georgia Southern. Crater scored in double digits just once last season, and Collins needed just two games to do that with 12 points Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
Collins is still not 100 percent from the hip injury that kept him out of USF's first five games, but as he gets healthier and more comfortable in a 30-minute role, Heath likes what his court vision can do for his teammates.
"Our offense flows a lot better, crisper -- I know sometimes you're wondering 'What the heck are they running?'" Heath said. "(Collins) gets in the game, and it's 'Oh, I see. It looks good. It's a pretty good offense.' He makes a difference in how you run things. He is ... a true point guard that can run your team. Everybody gets more involved with a guy like Collins on the floor."
The battle for minutes as Heath settles into a seven- or eight-man rotation will only heighten when junior guard Jawanza Poland is cleared to return from back problems that have kept him from playing.
Heath has won the last two games without his top returning scorer, forward Augustus Gilchrist, who is questionable for VCU but expected to return by Saturday's game at Kansas. Junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, with two double-doubles in his last three games, has played well enough alongside senior center Ron Anderson to keep his minutes up once Gilchrist is back healthy.
"I don't want to see Toarlyn's minutes drop too much -- there's 80 minutes in those (two post) spots," Heath said. "If we went 30, 25, 25, that'd be fair to all three of those guys, and who knows, maybe at some point in time, we can play all three together."