TAMPA — USF coach Stan Heath has been waiting a full year for today.
Guard Mike Mercer and forward Gus Gilchrist have been waiting to get onto the court for almost two years.
And there's no telling how long USF fans have been waiting for the potential that could be realized when those two make their Bulls debuts at the Sun Dome today against Niagara.
"The competition in practice has risen. The attention level has risen. We look like a very versatile team now," Heath said. "We see better perimeter shooting, we see interior scoring, and we see better defense because if guys get tired, they can come out now. … We're as deep as we've ever been."
The Bulls (3-3) have taken three close losses on the road but get a significant boost from the two transfers who should both jump right into USF's starting lineup. After tough losses at UAB and at Central Florida, Heath said he needs to make a change to set his team in the right direction with six games before Big East play starts.
"I would feel differently if we just came off a three- or four-game winning streak, but when you just had two straight losses, things need to be shaken up a little bit," Heath said. "Shaking it up is a good thing."
Shaking it up is just what Mercer and Gilchrist can do, joining a Bulls team still trying to become relevant in a deep, competitive Big East. Mercer, a 6-foot-4 guard, made the SEC All-Freshman team as a starter at Georgia in 2006, but he suffered a knee injury in February 2007 and was dismissed from the team last fall. Since coming to USF in January, he has shown enough in a year of practice that junior Chris Howard, who has started 49 games in the past two years, is likely headed to the bench.
"I expect those guys to be 25-minute-plus guys," Heath said. "It would not surprise me if both guys are scoring double-digit points."
The Bulls have two solid scorers in guards Dominique Jones and Jesus Verdejo, but having two more scoring options should ease the load on everyone on both ends of the floor.
"The biggest thing for me is getting my team some wins," Mercer said. "I don't want to come out and try to do too much. I'll just do what I can do, but I feel like I can help on defense."
Gilchrist, a 6-10 power forward who spent this spring at Maryland, got a waiver from the NCAA allowing him to play without sitting out a full year.
"I feel like I'm ready," Gilchrist said. "I never get rusty. Me and Mike, we have chemistry playing together on the scout team, so now it's getting acclimated to the rest of the team. I think our chemistry will be fine."
Bulls fans will also see the debut of freshman guard B.J. Daniels, a promising quarterback who played two football games and should eventually succeed Matt Grothe as the starter. Daniels started practicing with Heath's team Monday and made a quick impression.
Heath hasn't had much functional depth in the first six games, but with three more players, he has the power of pulling players when they aren't doing what he wants.
"I have a little more latitude," he said. "That's a nice way to put it."
If the Bulls can win today against Niagara, they'll have a bigger test Tuesday at Vanderbilt as part of the Big East/SEC Invitational. The hope is that the addition of three impact players could turn some of the close losses into wins.
"All of our games, we were in them. They were very beatable. Our record is not what our team's potential has shown," Gilchrist said. "Now we're moving forward from that."