As first games go, Alex Rivas Sanchez's didn't seem like anything incredible in Friday night's win against SMU: eight points, six rebounds and a steal in 15 minutes off the bench.
But for a player who couldn't run fullcourt drills just two weeks earlier, for a 6-foot-10 center who had surgery in May to insert metal rods into his lower legs, it was a huge step forward.
"It feels great," Rivas Sanchez said Monday as the Bulls prepared for tonight's second game, at Virginia. "I haven't played in a while, so it was a great sensation."
A month ago, coach Stan Heath wasn't sure Rivas Sanchez would play at all. The junior college transfer, expected to contribute much-needed frontcourt help, hadn't recovered from surgery as well as hoped. Once targeted to return to conditioning in August, he wasn't ready for that, and Heath feared he would have to redshirt.
"When that didn't happen, it put a red flag in my head. The alarm went off as well," Heath said. "When September came and we were still in that same limbo stage where he wasn't doing much, I did think to myself: If this continues, I don't think we'll be able to have him this year."
Post play is critical for the Bulls, who lost All-Big East center Kentrell Gransberry to graduation, leaving little depth. Starting center B.J. Ajayi was a power forward last season, and starting power forward Eladio Espinosa is a freshman. Another freshman, Gus Gilchrist, can join the team next month, but until then, the only backups are Rivas Sanchez and senior Aris Williams.
Friday's opener saw promising debuts for both, as Williams also had six points and five rebounds. A key sequence came midway through the first half, when Rivas Sanchez had picked up his second foul. Heath left him in, and he made back-to-back baskets, giving USF its first lead at 18-17. A minute later, he drew a charge that gave SMU's starting center his third foul. USF was in control the rest of the way.
"We got valuable minutes out of Alex," Heath said after the game. "I think everybody is kind of seeing that, boy, if this kid really gets healthy … he's only practiced fullcourt about a week now. When he gets his legs underneath him, when he gets his timing back, he's a guy who can help us a lot."
Rivas Sanchez, 22, chose USF out of Pratt Community College in Kansas. He averaged 12.1 rebounds, the sixth-best total in junior college basketball, playing every night with painful stress fractures in both legs. He'd played in pain since January 2007, opting for the surgeries after this season.
"I want to get my legs better and my game better," said Rivas Sanchez, who has small scars under each knee from the surgery.
Rivas Sanchez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, started playing basketball at 15, when a friend asked him to play on an intramural team. His tall frame was better suited for basketball than baseball, and before long, he had made an all-star team in his native Santiago. He would play on the Dominican national team, traveling to Colombia and Venezuela, and his play there got him to the United States and a prep school in North Carolina.
He was completely unaware of college basketball, not knowing the powerhouses from the patsies. Recruited by schools such as Auburn, Nebraska and Baylor, he chose USF for the chance to play in the Big East, for warm weather like in the Dominican.
"Before I came here (to the United States in 2005), I didn't know anything about (college basketball)," he said. "So every game counts to me. I don't care if it's Georgetown or five guys you pick up. I want to help this team in any way possible."