TAMPA — Stan Heath opens practice for his second season of USF basketball Friday, and while he still doesn't know if star transfer Gus Gilchrist can play this season, he's setting the bar high.
In the past three years, USF has aspired — and failed — to reach the Big East tournament, which took only the top 12 of the league's 16 teams. All 16 will play in Madison Square Garden this season, so Heath is challenging his team to land a first-round bye, which would require a regular-season finish in the top eight.
"Every year, there's one or two teams that will surprise you, that nobody thinks are going to be in the mix," Heath said. "We're not going to concede anything to anybody. … I still think being a postseason team is very important, something that has to be one of our goals. We want to attain that. … Trying to play five days in a row and win in the Big East tournament would be a huge challenge for anybody. We would like to avoid that first day, so that's one of our goals."
It's a tall order for a program that's yet to finish higher than a tie for 14th in the standings, with a 7-43 record in three years of league play. After a 12-19 mark in Heath's debut, even a .500 record and a trip to the NIT would be a major step, as the Bulls haven't played in the postseason since 2002.
Heath is optimistic about his guards, with starters Dominique Jones, Jesus Verdejo and Chris Howard returning, but needs to shore up the frontcourt, where the Bulls lost two-time Big East rebounding champ Kentrell Gransberry.
Gilchrist, awaiting word from the NCAA on a hardship waiver that would allow him to play this season, is a versatile scorer; Heath said he may be the team's best perimeter shooter at 6 feet 10, and Verdejo compares him to Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
"(We need) more of a blue-collar attitude, where we put on our hard hats, compete, work, get after it every single day," Heath said. "That's the mind-set we've tried to instill our team as we go into our season."
Heath isn't the only one with high expectations. Verdejo, one of three seniors, wants to take the Bulls to another level before leaving.
"I've got to play every game like it's my last," Verdejo said. "We've got a good understanding of what (Heath) likes, and I think we're going to do great.
"This year, my goal is to make the NCAA Tournament. We're looking for nothing less. That would be a huge step for everybody."
RECRUITING: Women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez has his first oral commitment for next season, getting a pledge from Kaneisha Saunders, a 5-9 combo guard from Delray Beach Atlantic. Saunders, who chose USF over James Madison and Florida A&M, averaged 20 points and eight assists last season. Her high school teammate, G Sasha Bernard, has USF in her final two but is likely headed to Indiana.
THIS AND THAT: The AFC champions will call USF home in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIII in January, using the Bulls' athletic facility and practice fields. USF also hosted practices in 2001, the last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa. … Men's soccer, off to a 5-1-1 start in the Big East, has a key showdown Saturday at St. John's, also 5-1-1, with the Red Division lead on the line. USF's women's team continues to impress with a 7-4-3 overall record. … Volleyball, off to a 3-3 start in Big East play, would miss the conference tournament right now in ninth place, though the Bulls are only 11/2 games out of second place in a league logjam.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.