Men's hoops: What might have been
Perspectives and prisms typically have no place in the results-based world of major college basketball. More often than not, boosters and bracketologists aren't concerned with injuries
or rookie-to-veteran ratios.
RPIs possess no soul, and the win-loss column is bereft of gray area; you are what your record says you are. Today, the USF Bulls are a 12-20 team whose season is done before St. Patrick's Day. To many fans, there's no sense probing further.
We will anyway.
Dissect the defeats, especially the ones down the stretch, and one can reasonably suggest the
Bulls weren't far from NIT candidacy. For a club whose best player (Anthony Collins) never sniffed a minute of conference action, it might have signified over-achievement.
"When you have a point guard as good as him, he knows how to take over the game and control
the game the last five minutes," senior Victor Rudd told reporters following the Bulls' 72-68 loss to Rutgers in Wednesday's opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.
"Even though I thought Josh (Heath) picked it up real good for us, but you miss a guy like
(Collins) and you can't replace a guy like that."
With Collins observing, USF lost six of its last seven games by a combined 21 points. In four
of those six narrow defeats, the Bulls shot less than 65 percent from the free-throw line.
Additionally, three of their four non-conference losses were by five or fewer points. In the second half of their 65-60 loss to Detroit, the Bulls were 11-for-19 from the stripe; in the final 20 minutes of a 66-65 loss to Santa Clara, they were 4-for-16.
Suppose for a moment USF had topped Detroit and Santa Clara, and had eked out three of those
six close games down the stretch. Instead of 12-20, they're a 17-15 team with one quality win (SMU) and perhaps two (Connecticut).
Now toss in this fact: Of the six regulars who averaged at least 20 minutes, four were first-year Division I players including three true freshmen. If the margin of defeats were any sign, the Bulls clearly didn't mail things in when hopes for a winning season were gone.
"I'm really proud of my guys and the fact that you lose games and you lose games that are
right down to the wire and it would be easy to pack it in and give up, and we never did," Coach Stan Heath said after Wednesday's loss. "We kept fighting, kept battling."
Yet for all the perceived grit, skeptics will scoff at the what-ifs. With valid reason.
In three of their last five defeats, USF led by at least nine in the second half, but failed to adjust and/or re-seize momentum when the opponent made a decisive run.
Questioning the coaching strategem at critical junctures also is fair.
Why was Will Cummings, Temple's best player, free to fly upcourt on the Owls' game-winning
possession Saturday? Where was the box-out on Rutgers' missed free throw in Wednesday's waning seconds, resulting in a Rudd foul and two ensuing game-clinching free throws?
Where was the trap on UCF senior Isaiah Sykes when the Knights' best player hit a game-winning runner off a simple screen last month at the Sun Dome?
Even if answers are found, they won't satisfy the bigger-picture questions.
The injury to Collins doesn't fully explain Heath's 97-130 record at USF, nor the fact the Bulls have lost 32 of their last 38 conference games (including Big East play) and have built zero momentum from their 2012 mini-run in the NCAA Tournament.
So Bulls constituents await the fallout on Fowler Avenue.
New athletic director Mark Harlan doesn't formally start until April 7, but he's already busy assessing the Bulls programs from the inside out. When asked specifically about men's hoops
Tuesday, Harlan said he will listen, evaluate and do "the right thing."
Heath has four years remaining on a contract that pays slightly more than $1 million per season. If he were to be fired, USF would owe him $1.5 million.
One senses Harlan will be thorough, but also proactive. When interviewed by USF's search advisory committee Tuesday, he made it clear he doesn't shy away from tough decisions. If one is to be made on Heath's future, expect it to occur before April 7.
In the meantime, fans will keep pondering what may happen.
And what might have been.