TAMPA — It hasn't yet translated to victory for USF, but a refocused Augustus Gilchrist is playing at a high level, averaging 15 points in the three games since he returned from an abrupt weeklong absence from the Bulls.
"He's a kid who is figuring some things out as time has gone along," coach Stan Heath said Wednesday of his 6-foot-10 junior forward, who leads USF (6-9) against another tough challenge tonight in No. 7 Villanova at the Sun Dome. "His game against UConn (21 points, eight rebounds Friday) was very, very impressive, and I want him to continue to play like that. When he does, he's as good as any power forward you're going to find in our league."
Gilchrist on Friday was one point shy of his best total in a Big East game — he had 22 against Pittsburgh as a freshman — and his emergence comes at a time when the Bulls need a leader to step up after a string of four losses in which they have consistently faded down the stretch. All nine losses have been by single digits, and the Bulls have led in the second half of most of those.
"The margin is not really big. We know we've had a lot of close games, and we know we could win any one of them, so that's why we have a confidence that we're going to win any game," Gilchrist said before practice Wednesday. "We just have to find a way to finish games."
Rebuilding the team's chemistry after playing with, then without, Gilchrist has been a priority for Heath, who is still seeking the assertive end-of-game leadership he had the past three seasons from guards Dominique Jones and Chris Howard. Heath has seen it in flashes from Gilchrist but is seeking a more consistent high level of play.
"Now you're seeing (Gilchrist) trust his teammates a little more, that he can throw it back out and the ball's going to come to him," Heath said. "It's just a part of development. … He's playing with a lot of confidence, and he's playing within the system."
Gilchrist hasn't elaborated on the "personal issues" that led him to leave the team for two road games last month; he was held out of a third game by Heath after rejoining his teammates. Since coming back, his role has steadily increased, from just 18 minutes off the bench in his return to a full 38 minutes in Friday's overtime loss at Connecticut.
"We're really putting the team on Gus, because he and (forward) Jarrid (Famous) are the only ones with experience in the Big East," sophomore guard Jawanza Poland said. "He's playing real good now, so we're just going to keep going off him. I think that last game showed that we're getting better chemistry with him back now, and we're going to keep getting better."
Gilchrist's exceptional range for his size — he opened last season 8-of-10 on 3-point attempts — hasn't been utilized as much, as Gilchrist is just 3-of-10 this season on 3-pointers, with no attempts since his return. He's second on the team with 5.9 rebounds a game, part of a tough frontcourt rotation.
The Bulls' path in the Big East won't get much easier, with eight league teams in the coaches' top 25 poll, including Sunday's opponent, Louisville, which is No. 23 in the coaches' poll and just outside the Associated Press top 25. Junior forward Ron Anderson said the challenge of learning to finish games in a strong fashion isn't complicated but has been difficult for a young Bulls team.
"It's a simple answer, not as easily executed," Anderson said of how to correct USF's late-game struggles. "We've lost by less than eight or nine points, so mentally, the guys see we're in the hunt, in the battle. If we win our next game, we're right in the middle of the Big East. It's just what we make of it."