TAMPA — Stan Heath hasn't seen much of a change in wins and losses yet, but his team's improved play in the past two weeks has coincided with the emergence of freshman forward Gus Gilchrist.
"Pretty much, he's been straight uphill for us," said Heath, preparing for a home game tonight against a DePaul team the Bulls beat by 22 points Jan. 10 in Chicago.
Gilchrist had 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the DePaul win, then followed with a season-high 22 points in a loss at No. 1 Pittsburgh. He has become the Bulls' No. 2 scorer in Big East play and credits his play to finding a comfort level on the court.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," the 6-foot-10 forward said. "The game experience is a lot for me as a freshman, and our team chemistry is really coming together."
Gilchrist's arrival at USF was greatly anticipated. The coveted recruit originally signed with Virginia Tech in 2007 but wound up at Maryland, then transferred to USF before playing a game with the Terrapins. An NCAA waiver allowed him to join the Bulls in December without sitting out a full year, giving the Bulls greater scoring balance, which they need in the deep, talented Big East.
Gilchrist wasn't able to show much early on. He had nearly as many turnovers (10) as field goals (11) in his first three games, adjusting to the tempo of the college game.
After not shooting better than 50 percent in any of his first eight games, he has done it in two of the past three, drawing more attention from opposing defenses away from guard Dominique Jones.
Heath sees three areas where Gilchrist has shown significant progress in the past month: "He's not as bad as he was defensively," Heath says with a laugh, adding more seriously that Gilchrist has been more selective with his shots and is "by far" in much better condition than he was in December, when he returned to basketball after a 21-month layoff.
"I'm able to play two halves of the game now," said Gilchrist, who said he was limited by bronchitis when he made his USF debut. "It's given me a feel for how physical the league is, how hard everybody plays, how every possession counts."
Gilchrist still has plenty to learn. West Virginia got him into foul trouble on Saturday, and he was limited to two points and two rebounds in 19 minutes before fouling out late in the Bulls' 62-59 loss. He has been more active on defense and has become the team's best shot blocker, averaging 1.3, twice as many as his closest teammate.
Except for the DePaul win, the Bulls have had to settle for close losses: by five at home to a ranked Syracuse team; by three Saturday at West Virginia.
Gilchrist said the DePaul win represented the game in which the Bulls have worked together best, and the challenge is in repeating that chemistry on their home court tonight.
"Our assists were off the charts that game," Gilchrist said. "That was a great game to demonstrate our teamwork, and our team defense. … As a team, we're coming along. We're going to start winning some of these close games."