TAMPA — Stan Heath has won a national championship as an assistant at Michigan State and has been to the Elite Eight as a head coach at Kent State, but now he has a sense of accomplishment and success from a team that may not even make it to the NCAA Tournament.
USF (19-11, 9-9) opens play in the Big East tournament today against 16th-seeded DePaul, and the mere fact that fans are debating how many wins the Bulls need to make the NCAA cut is a statement of how far the program has come in the past two months. The Bulls have been to the league tournament only once before, losing in last year's first round, so to be wondering about how many nights the Bulls can spend in Manhattan is a feat in itself.
"Stan's done a great job of building this program," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said Saturday after his team lost to the Bulls in Tampa. "Clearly they have a pool of great players. I like their team. He's had the patience to go through a couple of tough years.
"He's never, ever appeared to waver from what he wants to do."
That success hasn't been easy to come by. USF went 4-28 in its two seasons in the Big East before Heath took over in 2007, with a modest improvement to 7-29 in his first two seasons.
Having never won more than four conference games in a season, the Bulls have more than doubled that. Since an 0-4 start while forward Augustus Gilchrist was injured, USF is 9-5.
Even 9-9 is remarkable in USF's recent history. In their 10 years in Conference USA, the Bulls had a winning conference record just once, going 9-7 in 2000-01. To be squarely in the middle of a league as tough as the Big East, with the potential for more, is something Heath, 46, takes pride in.
"It's a huge statement for us," Heath said Saturday. "I remember people telling me, 'You can't win there. It's too hard a job.' It's the hardest job in America, if you listen to Dickie V. I think we've proven that's not true. We can win here. We can have success. We had success this year in this league, the best basketball conference in the country. We certainly don't want it to be a one-year wonder. We don't want to be satisfied with where we are right now — there's a lot of basketball to play and more things we can accomplish, and we want to do that."
ESPN's Dick Vitale said the depth of the Big East makes USF's rising even to the middle of the league something to praise.
"For him to go 9-9, having Gus Gilchrist out as much as he was, is an incredible achievement," Vitale said of Heath. "That league, from top to bottom, is as good as it gets. He's done a fantastic job."
The key to a four-game winning streak last month, including wins against ranked Pittsburgh and Georgetown teams, was amazing play from junior guard Dominique Jones, who averaged 35 points in those four wins.
After losing four of five games, the Bulls bounced back with three straight wins, effectively knocking Connecticut off the NCAA bubble. Jones hasn't been as dominating but still steady, scoring at least 20 in USF's four wins since. The supporting cast has stepped up, with senior guards Chris Howard and Mike Mercer leading the way and Gilchrist showing the same form that had him leading the Bulls in scoring before he missed two months with his ankle injury.
The players say Heath has found ways this season to give all of them confidence they can do things that haven't been done before.
"Coach instills confidence," said Howard, who watched as an injured freshman when the Bulls went 1-15 their first year in the Big East. "I don't know if he realizes how he does it; he gets the best out of each player he has. He finds a way to get a little extra out of him. The way he reached out to his players and connects with them is a key part in this."
The results haven't come until the past two months, but Mercer said the foundation was set in the past two seasons, even in close losses.
"What people don't understand is winning is a process," he said. "It's tough to come into a program and just win right off the bat. He did a great job of building us into a winning program, and we still have more growing to do, but we're going in the right direction."
USF's success is enough that more established programs could be calling for Heath, this offseason or after another solid year. Athletic director Doug Woolard said he looks forward to more of the progress Heath has led the Bulls to in his first three seasons.
"This is something he's building," said Woolard, who will have a new basketball practice facility costing more than $10 million in place for the Bulls by the end of the year. "I'm just happy with the success we've had. He is certainly as committed to our program as we are to him."
Heath's goal this week is to keep his players from finding contentment in what they've accomplished, to show them how close they are to something more, perhaps two or three wins away from the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years.
"We're so close," Heath said. "With all the adversity they faced, it would have been easy to get frustrated, to not give everything you have, but they haven't done that, and I'm really pleased. We've taken a really, really nice step forward this year, but we're not satisfied. We're close enough that we're going to go for it."