TAMPA — Stan Heath is confident he has a better basketball team this season at USF than he did a year ago, but even before the Bulls' first game Saturday, he can say without hesitation that he has a closer group of players than he did last year.
"It's been gradual steps over the course of the past half-year," Heath said after practice Monday at the team's new Muma Center next to the Sun Dome. "From summer, getting up early in the morning for our boot camp experience, opening this building, being excited about this, obviously being excited about the start of the season. Lessons were learned from last year when we don't have chemistry, when we're not working together and building that synergy, what can happen. Nobody wants to go backwards, and that's a big part of it as well."
The Muma Center is so new you still smell the paint during practice, and at the same time the Bulls are a team without a home court this year, as the Sun Dome is undergoing $35 million in renovations and won't reopen until next season. They open the season with three games in five days at three venues — the University of Tampa's Martinez Center, the St. Pete Times Forum (where all Big East home games will be played) and a cameo at the Lakeland Center.
For all that chaos, the Bulls have the bond of the Muma Center, a basketball-only facility shared by both Bulls teams. Instead of sharing the Sun Dome with concerts, graduations and science fairs, they have a place they know they can go, 24 hours a day, with a rack of basketballs and a hoop waiting.
"We can get in here any time at night, any time in the morning and always work on our game," said senior forward Augustus Gilchrist, the team's top returning scorer. "We do a lot of things outside of the team, hanging out with each other, and it shows on the court."
The facilities were built with basketball in mind — the doors are a foot taller than normal, shower heads are higher, subtle nods to the taller residents of the building. The facilities should help the Bulls directly from an X's and O's standpoint, having more time to practice free-throw shooting and rooms to watch video of opponents, but Heath thinks there's a greater value to the team than you can quantify on a stat sheet.
"We have a home," he said. "We have a place the guys can congregate to, come at different hours of the day. There are lounge areas, locker rooms, where they can be comfortable, take a nap, watch TV. It brings the guys together a lot more. We're totally in this environment exclusively. We have a little more private setting for our basketball team."
Heath's lineup hasn't changed dramatically from a year ago — there are newcomers in point guards Blake Nash and Anthony Collins and a rising star in Victor Rudd, who sat out last season after transferring from Arizona State — but the unity among those players is different, and that has created a more positive atmosphere.
"We're more together, chemistry-wise. I think we get along a lot better than previous years," junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "Just the camaraderie, the locker room talk, it's a lot closer. When we have free time we come here (to the Muma Center), get up some shots. We shoot together, hang out in the locker room. This building is ours. We're not sharing it with cheerleaders or volleyball. I'm excited about this and ready to get the season going."