TAMPA -— Ask 6-foot-8 senior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick about the challenge of stepping inside as USF's starting center this season, about his team's limited number of post players, and he doesn't so much as blink, remembering being pressed into a big role as an undersized freshman and handling himself just fine.
"I had no idea what I was doing out there. I was thrown to the wolves," said Fitzpatrick, who started 22 games that year. "We've been there before. We've overcome adversity time and time again. I think we have a tough group, and we'll be able to overcome it. It's no big deal."
The big deal is that USF trying to return to the NCAA Tournament — say that again, just for emphasis — after going 12-6 in the Big East and winning 22 games, including two in its first trip to the NCAAs in 20 years. There's a buzz around Bulls basketball, combining last year's success with a return to the Sun Dome after a $35 million renovation, and Fitzpatrick can't wait to see how USF can handle the novelty of such high expectations.
"I've been on the good teams and bad teams. Coach (Stan Heath) is expecting a lot from me," the King graduate said. "I'm just excited to show more of a leadership role, to take the younger guys under my wing and show them what things to do and what not to do to help our team win."
Point guard Anthony Collins is ready to build on a strong freshman debut, and Fitzpatrick hopes to become the vocal front-line leader that Ron Anderson was last year, keying the stifling defense that set a Big East record for fewest points allowed. USF will have a smaller, faster lineup that should be much stronger on the offensive end, with new perimeter shooting threats like freshman JaVontae Hawkins and sophomore Musa Abdul-Aleem, as well as returning shooters like seniors Shaun Noriega and Jawanza Poland.
Fitzpatrick won't be alone inside: 6-foot-9 junior Victor Rudd, who emerged as the team's top scorer down the stretch last season, will see more time as a power forward, and Heath added a graduate transfer in Florida Atlantic's 6-8 Kore White, who will provide depth along with 6-7 freshman Zach LeDay and, in small bursts, 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman Jordan Omogbehin.
Heath will shift to an uptempo pace, using his team's speed and athleticism to offset the lack of size inside, but after grinding out low-scoring wins last season, he's looking forward to fielding a more offensive-minded team without forgetting its core defensive identity.
"It's the most different team I've ever coached," Heath said. "We don't necessarily have true low-post players. All of our guys with size like to gravitate to the outside. I'm not going to change a Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who was my leading 3-point shooter, percentage-wise, last year. I'm going to let him shoot, and let the other team that has those 7-foot, 6-foot-10 guys chase him outside. We're going to open up that basket, be more of a driving team, more of a team that I think can shoot a lot better from the 3-point line."
USF will be hard-pressed to match that 12-6 Big East mark, with a schedule that has two games each with Louisville, Marquette, Connecticut and Villanova, but Heath has learned from last season and won't put a ceiling on his team's upside. This is a team proud of reaching the NCAA Tournament, but also one that knows how close it was to reaching its first Sweet 16 as well, and is motivated as a result.
"We want to challenge the very top of the league," Heath said. "That includes challenging for a championship, whether it's the regular season, the conference tournament or both. … We certainly have our eyes set on some lofty goals."