TAMPA — It was once a year of promise, as USF coach Stan Heath hoped to build on last season's NCAA Tournament berth and the Bulls' first two wins there.
But the losses have piled up, one after another, as many as 10 in a row at one point in Big East play.
Yet the biggest loss might have come back on Aug. 24.
Just three days before the fall semester started, USF announced that junior college center Waverly Austin, expected to be a frontcourt starter, was ineligible and released from his scholarship. He landed at Oregon, and the Bulls had a glaring void in the post all season long.
"They've struggled offensively, No. 1, and the big kid wasn't eligible to play from the start, and that set them back," ESPN's Dick Vitale said Tuesday. "I think the toughness of the league, last year, all those close games, this year, the fact that they couldn't score put pressure on people, and that added up to a long season."
After going 12-6 in the Big East last season, making Heath the Big East coach of the year, the Bulls have struggled to a 2-14 league record, the second win coming only Sunday, their eighth in a row against DePaul. Tonight, the Bulls play their final home game against Connecticut, hoping to end the season with some kind of positive momentum.
"We want to finish strong," Heath said of his final games and next week's Big East tournament. "We need to play well, need to improve our scoring."
The Bulls have struggled at historic levels to score with any consistency. Eight times in Big East play they've scoredd 50 points or fewer. To avoid becoming the lowest-scoring team the league has ever had in conference play, they must average 68.5 points (14.5 more than their Big East average) in the final two games.
Heath said his problems start with the lack of true frontcourt players, but long-term injuries to two of his top 3-point threats — guards Shaun Noriega hasn't played since early December with a foot injury, and guard Musa Abdul-Aleem has been sidelined with back problems — took away a much-needed complement from the outside.
"Our interior game isn't nearly as strong as we had last year," Heath said. "That's taken away something you sorely need at every level of basketball, an inside presence. Then you lose your top shooter in Noriega and the No. 2 guy we recruited to fill a scoring void was Musa. Those two haven't played very much at all."
The absence of inside and consistent outside threats have allowed defenses to focus on keeping point guard Anthony Collins from penetrating and dishing to open players, a key weapon in last year's NCAA run.
"It's been difficult for him to be effective the way he can be, and it's made scoring extremely hard for us," Heath said. "We've had moments, periods of time, but we haven't been able to sustain it for 40 minutes. It's been an Achilles heel for us this season."
Heath has his best recruiting class coming in, with players the Bulls could have used this season. John Egbunu and Chris Perry are national top-100 frontcourt players who could step in as starters, and Heath has seen good progress from current freshmen JaVontae Hawkins and Zach LeDay, who will return with Collins as part of a promising nucleus. Those players will find themselves in a different conference as the Big East splits into two basketball leagues.
A year ago this week, USF's clinching win in landing an NCAA berth came in beating Louisville on the Cardinals' senior night, and this season, Rick Pitino's team had two easy wins against the Bulls.
"I think they're in a rebuilding year. It happens that way," Pitino said. "They've played a lot of great basketball. They played great at home against Syracuse. They've had a lot of great first halves. They beat Georgetown. … They're a good group. They don't give up. It's tough right now, because they lost a lot of key players."