With each game, USF coach Stan Heath has a better sense of his team's strengths and weaknesses, and after a promising 5-2 start, he is shifting minutes in his backcourt to newcomers Anthony Collins and Blake Nash.
Collins, a freshman point guard from Houston, has made a splash in two games off the bench, totaling 13 assists against three turnovers, and Heath said Monday he'll get his first start tonight when the Bulls play at Virginia Commonwealth. Nash, a sophomore junior college transfer who can play both guard positions, will make his second start, playing shooting guard but giving Heath another playmaker on the court.
"We're 5-0 when we don't turn the ball over. … We haven't lost a game when we're positive (in) assist-turnover ratio," Heath said, preparing for a tough week that ends with a game at No. 15 Kansas on Saturday. "When you put Blake at the 2 (guard spot), you have two ball handlers out there. It really helps you protect and take care of the ball and make plays. I really like the two-guard lineup. … Until I see what I need to see from some of the other guys, I'm going to go with that lineup."
With their minutes rising — Nash averaged 13.5 in the first two games but has gotten at least 24 in each of the past five — the roles of point guard Lavonte Dority and shooting guard Shaun Noriega have diminished. Noriega's strength is as a 3-point shooter, but Nash has matched him in that category, going 9-for-25 while Noriega is 8-for-23.
Swingman Hugh Robertson, the team's best defensive player, has seen his minutes decrease three games in a row, and another guard/forward, Victor Rudd, has been inconsistent, averaging 9.8 points in five games since a 30-point effort against Marist two weeks ago.
"I'd still like to get a little bit more from our wings," Heath said. "I think Vic's been a little bit on and off, and I think he can do a lot more for us. I don't think Shaun's playing the way he's capable of playing. Neither is Hugh. They're doing things to help us, but I think there's still another level those guys can get to."
Dority, who averaged 27 minutes in the first three games, has averaged 13 in the past four, with two assists in that span.
As a whole, USF is getting strong play from its point guards. Last season, starter Anthony Crater never had more than two assists in a game. Collins has four and two in his two games, and Nash had three against Georgia Southern. Crater scored in double digits once last season. Collins needed two games to hit that mark, with 12 points Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
Collins is not 100 percent recovered from the hip injury that kept him out of USF's first five games, but as Collins gets healthier and more comfortable in a 30-minute role, Heath likes what his court vision can do for his teammates.
"Our offense flows a lot better, crisper. I know sometimes you're wondering 'What the heck are they running?' " Heath said. "(Collins) gets in the game, and it's, 'Oh, I see. It looks good. It's a pretty good offense.' He makes a difference in how you run things. He is … a true point guard that can run your team. Everybody gets more involved with a guy like Collins on the floor."
USF at VCU
When/where: 7:30; Verizon Wireless Arena, Richmond, Va.
Records: USF 5-2, VCU 3-3
Notable: The Rams lost key players from last season's Final Four team but still have a strong senior guard in Brad Burgess (12.3 ppg) under coach Shaka Smart. … Two of VCU's wins are against 2-5 Western Kentucky, and the Rams lost by 14 to Seton Hall and 13 to Georgia Tech. But this would be a solid road win for the Bulls.
Greg Auman, Times staff writer
FSU at Michigan State
When/where: 7:30; Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.
TV/radio: ESPN; 1040-AM
Records: FSU 5-2, Michigan State 4-2
Notable: This is one of the more interesting matchups in the 13th Big Ten/ACC Challenge, pitting teams that were both 10th seeds in last season's NCAA Tournament. … The Seminoles are playing their first game since dropping out of the Associated Press poll for the first time this season. They have lost two straight, including an upset to Harvard in the Battle 4 Atlantis. … The Spartans have won four in a row against lesser schools after losing their first two to ACC powers North Carolina and Duke. … Michigan State is allowing an average of 54 points per game, 11th best in the nation, on 35.5 percent shooting. FSU is allowing 57 points on 33.7 percent shooting. … The schools have met once, with FSU winning 68-63 in the 1997 NIT.