NEW YORK — He has had teams accomplish much more, but as Stan Heath has watched USF make its improbable run to the verge of the NCAA Tournament, the ride has already been uniquely rewarding.
"I'm having a fantastic time with these guys," Heath said Tuesday, preparing for tonight's Big East tournament opener. "They come to work every day in practice. They don't mind being coached. We're just enjoying the ride. We want to continue, and we know we have work to do, but it's fun being part of this right now."
Heath, 47, whose team went 12-6 to tie for fourth in the league standings, on Tuesday was selected by his peers as the Big East's coach of the year. He guided the Bulls to the second-biggest improvement in conference history.
"The list of coaches that are Hall of Famers that have won an award like this, to be on that list, I'm very humbled," said Heath, who had his assistants in attendance as he was presented with the trophy. "I think it's a team award. My players did an unbelievable job of coming together, playing hard and winning games."
A year ago, Heath's Bulls went 10-23 and 3-15 in the conference, and the same coaches picked his team to finish 14th out of 16 teams this season. Accepting the award was the only thing Heath had to do at Madison Square Garden, having earned a first-round bye with his team's No. 6 seed.
"I think this is probably the most satisfying season he's had as a head coach," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who once had Heath as an assistant at Bowling Green. "One of the things that's very enjoyable is when you exceed everybody else's expectations."
USF has won with stifling defense, on course to reset the Big East record for fewest points allowed. That part of the Bulls' success is what Michigan State coach Tom Izzo — who had Heath as an assistant for a national title in 2000 — likes most about this team.
"I follow every game. We're big South Florida fans up here," Izzo said Tuesday by phone. "I'm really proud of him, really happy for him. … I was excited when he went to South Florida. In building that program, it's not an easy job. I think he's done a phenomenal job. What I really like is watching his defense. We pride ourself on that, and he's carried on what he helped me get straightened out here."
USF, playing its entire season off campus while the Sun Dome undergoes a $35 million renovation, went 14-2 at home, winning five games by three points or fewer. Needing signature wins to help their NCAA resume, the Bulls beat Cincinnati — now the No. 4 seed in the league — at home and a ranked Louisville team last week on the road, helping their position on the NCAA bubble.
Heath has been motivated by critics who have discounted the team's success, and he has been vocal in saying the Bulls need to "kick the door in" with a convincing close to the season.
"I just try to be honest. I try to say what I think," Heath said. "I don't want to go overboard. I don't want to be cocky. I don't want to be arrogant. But I think this team has proven, at least for the last two months, that it's a very good basketball team."
USF freshman point guard Anthony Collins missed the first five games but has since earned Big East All-Rookie honors. Guard Jawanza Poland missed the first 11 games, but the team hasn't had a bad loss since it has been at full strength.
"I love this team. I really do. I'm not sure I loved it in November, but I've grown to love it," Heath said.
The Bulls' improvement already has a place in Big East history, and games and goals remain, but Heath ranks this as the best progress he has ever seen one of his teams make.
"This would be No. 1, by far," Heath said. "From last year to this year, the transformation of our team, just buying in, the work ethic, setting aside egos and personal things for the betterment of the team, this has been No. 1 by far."