TAMPA — Starting as a freshman in the Big East, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick could easily feel overmatched.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward from King High was supposed to be a role player for USF this season, perhaps the fourth post player rotating in off the bench. But a pair of injuries have thrust him into a starting role, and he has handled himself admirably against more experienced competition.
"It's just been amazing to watch his progression and evolution throughout the season," said coach Stan Heath, whose Bulls face No. 17 Pittsburgh today at the Sun Dome. "He's had some double double games, he's hit some big shots, he's rebounded the ball. He's definitely going to become a very, very good player in this league."
Fitzpatrick has been in this position before. He started playing varsity high school basketball as a sixth-grader at Cambridge Christian School when he was already 6 feet tall.
"I've always played against older guys, bigger guys," said Fitzpatrick, 20, who played his high school ball less than 5 miles from USF's campus. "Now that I'm in college, my age is starting to catch up to me a little bit."
It was a fortunate break that USF and Fitzpatrick came together. He had signed with Georgia Southern but was granted a release after a coaching change there. USF had recruited Fitzpatrick since his sophomore year, but Heath wasn't initially convinced he could maintain a high level of intensity in the Big East.
Given a second look, the Bulls saw how he took King's program on his back, leading the team to the state final four, including a triple double in the regional championship. The interest was suddenly mutual, but neither side expected this successful a first season.
"I didn't imagine it would work out as well as it has," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm learning something every game, and I'm starting to get more comfortable with my teammates. In practice, they're always pushing me to be better, and that's gotten me ready to play at this level."
The confidence his teammates have in Fitzpatrick was never more apparent than in the closing seconds of USF's game at Providence last weekend. The Bulls, trying to rally from a nine-point deficit with 40 seconds to play, got a loose ball in the closing seconds, down three, and point guard Chris Howard passed up a contested shot to pass the ball to an open Fitzpatrick, who had hit just one 3-pointer all season.
The shot went in with 0.2 seconds on the clock, and the Bulls went on to a 109-105 overtime win — just their third on the road in Big East play in five seasons. The confidence swelled from there, and he nailed an open 3-pointer during USF's home win against Seton Hall on Thursday.
"It definitely boosts my confidence to be trusted by my teammates like that," said Fitzpatrick, who takes about 50 3-pointers a day in practice and has connected on three of his past four attempts beyond the arc.
His averages aren't jaw-dropping — 5.4 points and 5.1 rebounds a game — but it's little things, like five steals in a win against Rutgers, or a team-high 18 blocks this season. He has become something of a fan favorite as the first Tampa player on the Bulls roster since Terrence Leather in USF's Conference USA days.
The crowd at the Sun Dome frequently includes a familiar contingent that makes the 10-minute drive from King — his coach Sam Lanier, former teammates and teachers and even school administrators, people who aren't surprised by Fitzpatrick's success.
"Everyone that comes into contact with Toarlyn realizes he's an outstanding person," said Lanier, who has seen Fitzpatrick attend a few King games this season. "The thing you remember about Toarlyn is that he made everybody else around him better. He's a hard worker, he's competitive, and he wants to be successful."
Perhaps as soon as this week, the Bulls will get sophomore power forward Gus Gilchrist back after six weeks on the sideline with a severe ankle sprain. A healthy Gilchrist would displace Fitzpatrick from the starting lineup, but he has already made a strong impression on the players around him.
"He's come really far. He has progressed a lot," guard Dominique Jones said. "That's what it takes, the extra work and working hard out here. Those are the kind of things it takes to be good in the Big East."
Times writer Brian Landman contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.