TAMPA — Stan Heath may have the best frontcourt in the Big East this season, but as he opens his fourth season at USF tonight against Southern Miss, the biggest factor in the Bulls' success may be how well the new point guards can step in and lead.
"The strength of our team is our inside guys," Heath said Tuesday. "We have to impose our identity from the beginning. We've got to be a team that sets the tone going inside. If you're going to be a team as a football team that runs the ball, you start off your first couple of plays running the ball. We have to get the ball inside to our bigs and see how people adjust to us, then go from there."
Gone are point guard Chris Howard, a four-year starter, and shooting guard Dominique Jones, who handled the ball plenty before leaving after his junior year to become the Bulls' first-ever first-round draft pick; he's now with the Dallas Mavericks.
"We have some ways to go. I'll admit it: I was spoiled with Dominique and Chris. They were not only good players but good coaches out on the floor," Heath said. "I'm challenging (our) guys to reach that level if they can. My biggest concern is developing our point guard position. I'm pleased with our wing development, pleased with our big guys. I've got to develop our point guard position."
The only returning point guard is junior Anthony Crater, who played 23 minutes a game last season in support of Howard, and averaged 3.1 points and 1.7 assists. Crater, a transfer from Ohio State, is among the fastest players in the Big East and is perhaps the team's best perimeter defender, but he has struggled to find his shot, hitting just 18 percent of his 3-pointers last season. His top challenger is junior Shedrick Haynes, a junior college transfer from Bradenton with more of a scoring presence. Freshman LaVonte Dority is also in the mix for minutes at the point.
USF's only open exhibition, a win against Division II Eckerd College, didn't provide a promising look at the point guards nor improve Heath's opinion of them. Crater sat on the bench until early in the second half, and Haynes didn't play at all, with the point-guard duties split between shooting guard Mike Burwell, who had four assists, and Dority, who had two assists in 17 minutes.
Heath cited the players' "commitment" to the team in practice for the extended bench time; Crater will start at point guard tonight.
The Bulls have a strong frontcourt in junior forward Augustus Gilchrist and senior center Jarrid Famous, but Heath said leadership is harder to find from the post. He needs it from far less experienced guards, even if the focus of the offense shifts from Jones' talent outside to the new strength inside.
"It's almost like we went from Peyton Manning throwing the ball to, I don't know, whoever just grinding it out," Heath said. "We have to go inside. Our offense has been tweaked a little bit. Those (guards) know there's a yellow light there, too, where if it's not there, we have to slow it down and get it in to the big guys."
Heath has much better depth than he had last season, and with that comes a greater accountability for how players are performing on the court. The same mistakes that might have drawn only a look of frustration from Heath last season might now result in a quick seat, which the coach hopes will be an effective disciplinary measure during games.
"The luxury I have this year is I can substitute very easily," Heath said. "We probably have two guys at every position, and there's not a wide range of differences at a lot of those spots. All the guys know that, 'If I'm not getting it done, Coach is going to make a change.' "