Thursday, December 14, 2017
Sports

Added size gives USF Bulls high hopes for new season

TAMPA — At the very spot where their team seemed to lack teeth the previous winter, USF partisans found a fang or two Monday night.

Midway through the first half of the Bulls' exhibition against Barry, 6-foot-10, 245-pound freshman John Egbunu received an interior bounce pass, dribbled once on the baseline and rose for an uncontested two-handed dunk. Then things got heavier.

Late in the second, 6-8, 260-pound rookie Chris Perry had a putback layup, a fastbreak layup and a steal during a 13-0 spurt. By night's end, Egbunu and Perry teamed for 20 points, 12 boards, four blocks and two steals.

Suddenly, any discussion about the Bulls' postseason aspirations had a bit more credence.

Which is to say, weightier.

"I just think a month from now, two months from now, three months from now, as these guys continue to get better … I just think you're going to continue to see our team get better and improve," coach Stan Heath said.

The root of USF's 2012-13 misfortune lay mostly under the basket, where the Bulls (12-19, 3-15 Big East) ranked last in the conference in rebounding (32.6 per game) and scoring (58.8 ppg), and 13th of 15 teams in blocks (3.35).

But in his best recruiting season at USF, Heath addressed the frontcourt — in bulk.

Egbunu and Perry, 19-year-old behemoths ranked among the nation's top 100 Class of 2013 recruits by ESPN, provide a fresh dimension and fresh hope.

"Very few ever have pieces like that," said Heath, who opens his seventh season tonight at home against Tennessee Tech.

"These are special guys. They've got a ways to go, they've got things to learn, but you can see the talent when they're out there on the floor."

A Nigeria native entering his fourth year of organized basketball, Egbunu already has achieved minor folk-hero status on campus via his YouTube clips and gravity-defying exploits, which include a 360-degree dunk in high school.

"He not only jumps high, but he jumps quick," Heath said. "And so sometimes you think you have a shot and it's clear, and he just comes and swats it."

Perry says with a running start, Egbunu can elevate from the free-throw line and dunk.

"John is 6-10, 6-11, with a 40-inch vertical," said 6-9 top returning scorer Vic Rudd, now free to spend more time on the wing with Perry and Egbunu underneath. "It's unbelievable what he can do."

Perry, who wears a size 17 sneaker and owns a 37½-inch vertical, is more polished to this point. A first-team Class 7A all-state pick last winter, he averaged double doubles each of his last two years at Bartow High, leading the Yellow Jackets to the 2013 state tournament.

An engaging and lighthearted character, he can transition into a rebounding force when the right buttons are pushed, Heath said.

"He's got great hands and footwork and a tremendous feel for the game," Heath said. "He gets the ball, and he can just easily make touch shots. He's got just a nice, big body that's hard to get around once he kind of puts his behind on you."

The girth, however, likely doesn't come without a grace period.

Perry picked up two fouls in the first 1:43 Monday, and Egbunu's post moves still are being refined. In conference play, who knows if one or both might hit a wall.

Fortunately for Heath, this shapes up as his deepest team ever.

Sophomore Zach LeDay has added 25 pounds — to 245 — and could provide another formidable body. Meantime, veteran point guard Anthony Collins, still rehabbing after summer surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac, now has true point guards for backups.

If the rebounding and shot blocking improve, Rudd and senior Martino Brock can fill lanes on the break. And if defenses collapse more, better looks are bound to come for a team that was frigid from the floor (38.9 percent) last season.

It all must play out. But for now, there's promise. Super-sized.

"Last year, not to take anything away from them, but I don't think they had a shot blocker or inside presence like a scorer," Perry said. "But we have both of those now."

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