Coach Stan Heath keeps pushing USF men's basketball toward the next rung

As USF puts together its best Big East season ever, coach Stan Heath envisions this as only the beginning.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

As USF puts together its best Big East season ever, coach Stan Heath envisions this as only the beginning.

For a basketball coach, the most important moments are those no one ever sees. It is there, in the echoes of an almost empty gym, or in the lonely drive back from yet another recruiting trip, a coach tries to put the spackle on a program that has long been in disrepair.

Stan Heath has had a few of those.

The best moments, on the other hand, come in front of a scoreboard and a crowd that was a bit better than yesterday's. It is there that the overlooked moments pay off. It is there that a team reintroduces itself to the world of college basketball.

Lately, Heath has had a few of those, too.

Well, look at this. The USF basketball program has learned how to walk again.

If Heath has his way, it may soon learn how to run.

This is somewhere between healing the sick and raising the dead. After all these years, the Bulls have rebounded. They are no longer the least of the Big East. They are no longer worthy of a league's disregard.

Who would have believed this? Aside from Heath, of course.

For four years now, USF has looked like a team in deep over its head, unable to measure up to its conference in money, facilities or tradition. In the league where basketball mattered the most, USF mattered the least.

A reminder: Every other team in the Big East — all 15 of them — had reached a Final Four in basketball; USF had never won an NCAA Tournament game, and its latest one-and-done came 18 seasons ago.

Job wouldn't have wanted Heath's job. Considering what he had and what he had to compete with, it was the worst in college basketball, perhaps the worst in organized sports. To make it worse, you would have had to put snakes on the court and poisonous spiders in the locker room. At least, the snakes would have been better rebounders.

Yet, after beating Cincinnati on Tuesday night, the Bulls find themselves in the middle of the Big East with a 16-9 record (and 6-7 in conference play). In other words, they have been just good enough to make you — and Heath, for that matter — think they can be better.

"I expected us to be like this at some point," Heath said Thursday. "It's happening now, but I don't want to be satisfied with where we are. We still have so many opportunities in front of us."

Being a basketball coach, Heath talks that way. During a 15-minute conversation, he brought up Saturday's home game against St. John's six times. It is as if Heath, 45, lives his life in the middle of a fastbreak, always looking toward the goal, always trying not to trip along the way.

Once, his friends warned him against this job. It was USF, for crying out loud, where coaching was like trying to win a sword fight with a salad fork. This was a team that was 15 games under .500 in Conference USA. What chance did it have in this league?

Even in Heath's first two seasons (a combined 21-41), he admits his team was more in "survival mode," trying to steal a win when the opponent wasn't watching.

Ah, but Heath had a vision. And the cool thing is, his vision looks even better than this.

"I think we're halfway up the ladder," Heath said. "I still relish the chance to win a Big East championship. I want to go to the NCAA Tournament. We still have a lot of work to do.

"This could be a year when we look back and say, 'This was the year when everything got started.' We have to have success as we close out. We need to play in the postseason. The higher level we play, and the further we go, the bigger step we take."

At this point, it's impressive to see the Bulls walking at all. In its first four years in the Big East, USF won only 11 of 68 conference games, and only two of 34 on the road. Still, no one suggested the Bulls were playing below expectations. There were no expectations.

Now, there are. Heath has put together a cohesive, resilient team that has managed to stop the laughter from the rest of the league. He has given Skip Holtz a reason to wonder if he has gone to work for a basketball school. That ought to be worth a couple of Big East coach of the year votes in itself.

"Nobody wants to be the joke of the league, the team that everyone walks over," Heath said. "We felt that way in preseason. We look at the polls that come out. We hear different comments like, 'Hey, you're supposed to beat USF and Rutgers.' "

It hasn't been easy. Heath has put together his team with one of those scramble-and-gamble recruiting jobs that blends players at their second colleges — Mike Mercer transferred from Georgia, Anthony Crater from Ohio State and Augustus Gilchrist from Maryland — and players on their second chances — Mercer and Crater both had off-the-court problems. Compared to the top-shelf recruiting of Louisville's Rick Pitino, UConn's Jim Calhoun and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, that's winning the hard way.

"I'd love to be where you select from the top of the line," Heath said, laughing softly. "We have to be open-minded. We have to take healthy and calculated risks. But it still has to be about talent, character and possibilities."

Possibilities? Who ever said that about USF basketball?

"I'm trying to build a program," Heath said. "I don't want to be a one-time wonder. Can we win the Big East? We've got to try every year. Is it realistic? I don't know. But if we're going to play marbles, I'm going to try to win."

Suddenly, that concept doesn't sound crazy anymore.

After all this time, the Bulls finally seem big enough for the Big East.

Coach Stan Heath keeps pushing USF men's basketball toward the next rung 02/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 10:07pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...