TAMPA — Points and rebounds are wonderful, really, but what Hugh Robertson is really looking for when handed the stat sheet after a USF game is an ugly night for whatever star Stan Heath has asked him to shut down.
"I love it. Every game, Coach lines me up with the best player, and I accept the challenge," said Robertson, a 6-foot-6 senior guard from Macon, Ga., who has started every Big East game in his two seasons with the Bulls. "I like doing that, and he knows that, so he puts me on the best player, to try to contain them, hold them down so we have a chance to win the game."
Last week, when USF derailed a red-hot Pittsburgh team in a key home victory, Robertson had a season-high 18 points, but he was smiling for a different reason: He held Panthers guard Ashton Gibbs, the Big East preseason player of the year, to four points, his fewest in nearly two years. And Robertson wasn't taking the blame for all four, either.
"He was mad at me, because Gibbs' first two points, I didn't hedge. I told him in the game, 'I'll take the first two,' " said senior center Ron Anderson, his friend and roommate for both seasons with the Bulls. "Two of them were on me, so really, he only scored two on him. He sets the tone on defense, because game in, game out, he's checking the best player. He takes pride in that. It's what makes the game fun for him."
Robertson's all-around play has helped the Bulls to their best Big East success in seven seasons in the league. USF, picked 14th in the preseason, is 15-10 overall and 8-4 in conference and in position to finish in the top half of the league, something that should lead to an NIT berth, or perhaps the Bulls' first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years.
In two years, Robertson has faced some elite scorers — BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Connecticut's Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, for starters. Heath said Robertson's dedication in breaking down video of his opponents to pick up small advantages is the start of his being USF's best perimeter defensive player.
"He takes the strength of the opponent away from him, as much as he can," Heath said. "He's a good study of the opponent's offense and the guy he's guarding, what he likes to do, if he's a shooter or a driver, he goes right or he goes left. … He fights through screens, he uses his length, he's got good quick feet."
Robertson said he wasn't always defensive-minded, but when he got to Tallahassee Community College after a solid high school career, he saw defense as a necessity to catch up with the higher talent level.
"Everybody else is as good as you, as athletic as you, and I didn't want to be embarrassed," Robertson said. "It's just mental: I want to play defense. Watching film, watching the player, seeing what they do, their moves, trying to take that over, that helps me a lot."
Heath has challenged Robertson to be more aggressive on offense, where much of his scoring comes in transition and on putbacks. He does a little of everything, ranking second on the team in assists and steals and third in rebounding. But with a 54 percent shooting mark that is second on the team, Heath wants him confident to take on scoring for himself.
"I'm nowhere near selfish," Robertson said. "I don't like to take the shot. I like to share the wealth with my teammates. (Heath) tells me that: 'At least look to score.' Sometimes, I don't even look to score. He tells me that a lot: 'Be more assertive, be aggressive.' That's the main thing he tells me."
Robertson is listening. After going more than a year without scoring more than 12 in a game, he has done it twice in two weeks, with 15 in a win against Providence and his 18 against Pitt. Tonight, his challenge is containing Villanova guard Maalik Wayns, who had a team-best 17 points when the Bulls won last month in Philadelphia.
That desire to put defense first isn't common in today's college basketball, but it's something that drew Heath to Robertson in the recruiting process, and something that has USF playing its best basketball in a long time.
"It lights me up to know somebody's willing to take pride in doing the things that aren't glamorous, things that aren't written a whole lot in the paper, and to do it with enthusiasm, too," Heath said. "It's an important, important job, and something very few guys like to do. When you find someone willing to make that kind of sacrifice, you know he's a guy who can help you win games."