TAMPA — As surprising as the final score was Monday night in the Sun Dome — USF barely edged St. Francis 74-71 — the actual upset that took place was the Bulls' bench outscoring their starters by a 38-36 margin.
"I don't think that's ever happened," coach Stan Heath said, missing the fact that it actually happened three nights earlier, when USF's reserves had 27 of the Bulls' 53 points in an opening loss to Southern Miss. "We have a good bench. It's eventually going to be too hard to play 11 guys. We'll have to shrink things down to a nine-man rotation. It's good to have guys who can come into a game and help us, help us in a big way."
That Heath's bench could outscore his starters is first a reminder of how much talent from last season the Bulls lost in Gs Dominique Jones, Chris Howard and Mike Mercer. Over 33 games last season, USF's starting five outscored the bench by an average of 50 points; the closest the subs got to the starters was 15 points (32-17) in a 74-49 loss to Villanova, and that was a game in which normal starters Augustus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous got 30 minutes each off the bench.
So yes, USF's starters aren't as good as last year, but the idea of a real, contributing bench is something Heath didn't have last season — non-starters averaged 8.7 points, and junior F Ron Anderson is doing that all by himself, averaging 10.5 points in his first two games. Junior Shedrick Haynes, the backup point guard, has nine assists and just one turnover, outplaying starter Anthony Crater, who has seven assists against five turnovers.
And regardless of which sophomore guard Heath starts between Shaun Noriega and newcomer Jawanza Poland, it's clear both will contribute — each had 15 points on Monday, with Noriega getting 14 in the first half, again off the bench. Poland led the Bulls against Southern Miss with 12 points even though he didn't start.
The three players on the podium speaking to the media after Monday's win were Anderson, Noriega and Poland, and Anderson acknowledged that while that trio isn't likely to appear together for interviews, all are capable of scoring like starters when necessary.
"Coach has said we have 11, 12 guys who can play, and every game, somebody else has to step up, because not everybody's going to have their best game," he said. "I was able to come in tonight and contribute as best I can. The guys on the bench, we knew we couldn't come in lazy, had to bring a spark off the bench, and I think for the most part, we did that."
THIS AND THAT: USF men's soccer has just nine wins this season, matching the fewest of any at-large team in the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulls got in by playing a tough schedule. Wins against top-25 opponents in Ohio State and West Virginia helped USF's resume, and even though it was an exhibition, a preseason win against overall No. 3 seed Akron might have helped the Bulls. … With men's and women's soccer making the NCAA Tournament and USF bowl-eligible in football, the Bulls are off to a strong start in the Director's Cup all-sport standings. West Virginia is the only other Big East school to put both soccer teams in the NCAA field and be bowl eligible in football.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.