TAMPA — Much like the player they adorn, the tattoos on Jawanza Poland's body are a study in contrast, equal parts swagger and humility.
Across his back, the 6-foot-4 junior guard has the nickname given to him in Wichita, Kan., by his across-the-street neighbors, who responded to one of his driveway dunks by shouting "Air Wanza!" On the court, Poland is electric, showing off track-star leaping skills to take off for wild dunks.
For all that athleticism and excitement, Poland holds out his arms, palms up, to show the tattoos he can see every day, reminders of what got him to USF on a college basketball scholarship. "Hard work," reads his left arm in ornate lettering. "Determination," says the right. And as USF strives to be more competitive in the Big East, in games like tonight against Seton Hall, it needs both sides of Poland to come together on the court.
"We need more high-energy guys, and he's someone who can get the crowd excited, get his teammates excited," coach Stan Heath said. "He gets things going, gets on a roll, and it energizes your team."
Poland, who averaged 9.1 points last year in his first season in Tampa, missed the first 11 games as he recovered from a back injury, but in six games back, he has become the Bulls' leading scorer, averaging 11.2 points. His shooting percentage is up across the board — field-goal shooting up from 36 percent to 44 percent, 3-point shooting up from 23 to 27 percent, and free throws up from 72 to a team-best 87 percent.
He's just now at 100 percent himself, still a bit sore after some games. Poland had a hairline fracture to a vertebra in his lower back, from an injury when he caught his hand on the backboard attempting a dunk last season. For a player whose game is high-flying, a bad back kept him from being the same player down the stretch.
"I felt it toward the end of last season, but I still played. The pain was there," said Poland, who averaged just 5.3 points over his final 10 games of the season. "It was tough sitting out practice (early this season), not going on trips, watching everybody practice together, but my coaches told me to stay focused and be ready when it's my turn."
He has stepped up in the past three weeks, matching a career high with 20 points in the Bulls' victory at Villanova. He has made solid steps forward as a defender and rebounder, and Heath sees a better approach in practice and preparation as well.
"I see, from last year to this year, a nice maturity and growth," Heath said. "I don't think it's any secret we need to improve our scoring. Having him back has generated more of an offensive punch. He takes some pressure off the other guys on the floor.
"His presence alone is opening up our offense."
Poland nonchalantly shares that he was measured with a 42-inch vertical leap last year, a combination of his athleticism and a track background that included the high jump and long jump. He's quiet by nature, still coming out of his shell in Tampa after living his whole life in Kansas.
He played basketball at two Kansas junior colleges and had the chance to stay at home for college at Wichita State, but he's glad to have taken a bigger leap to USF and the spotlight of playing in the Big East.
"It's a lot more people here. In Wichita, everybody knew everybody. Here, I meet a new person every day," he said. "It's better for me as I grow in life and move on in life; it's better to meet new people, new scenery."
Poland is feeling as healthy as he has in nearly a year, and that's coinciding with USF playing some of its basketball in the past two seasons, hoping to build on a 2-2 start in conference play.
"I feel like we have a lot of confidence," he said. "Coming off my injury, I feel like I'm getting better, every game, and every day in practice."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.