NASHVILLE — Just as this year's USF men's basketball team was motivated by the disappointment of last season's 10-23 record, coach Stan Heath says this first taste of NCAA Tournament success — and the sting of losing Sunday to 13th-seeded Ohio — will drive his team to return for more next season.
"We'll use this as fuel, use this to take things to a higher level," Heath said Sunday after the Bulls' 62-56 loss. "Number one, we won't go 7-6 in nonconference. I can tell you that right now. We're going to set the tone early. We already know how good defense can be for us, and with some of the guys we have coming in, we have a lot of firepower offensively. … Don't be surprised. We'll be a hungry group."
Sunday's loss, ending a wild tournament run of three games in five days, will linger with the Bulls in coming month, allowing the team to relish the greatest season in the program's history, but still be motivated by the knowledge that even more was within its grasp.
"Us having a good year, we want to go further next year," said guard/forward Victor Rudd, a rising junior who scored in double digits in all of USF's final five games. "We're going to get in the weight room with our weight coach, and on the track and go harder than we did last year so we can be a successful team next year. Our newcomers coming in, we're going to welcome them with open arms and have a good offseason and come in ready."
He said that Sunday night, but on Monday evening Rudd announced he was submitting his name for early entry into the NBA draft. However, he kept the door open for a return by saying he wasn't hiring an agent. If Rudd leaves, the Bulls would have to replace four starters from this season's team.
The Bulls lose three senior starters in center Ron Anderson, forward Augustus Gilchrist and guard Hugh Robertson, but should have greater depth in 2012-13, with at least five newcomers to help offset those losses and challenge the returning players. The nucleus will start with point guard Anthony Collins, who sparked this team as a freshman with poise and leadership from the start.
"The best is yet to come for that young man," Heath said Sunday. "He's good, but just wait until next year, because he will be extremely motivated. This kid gets up during a regular year at 6 in the morning and shoots and works on his game when everybody else is sleeping. He's a hungry, motivated young man, and he's going to set the tone for everybody … So 22 (wins) and winning a couple (NCAA Tournament) games, that's not going to last very long here."
In the past week, USF has reset the expectations for a program that hadn't been to the NCAAs in 20 years and had never won a tournament game. With wins against California and fifth-seeded Temple, these Bulls have radically changed what will be considered a success for USF basketball.
"I think it does wonders for our program, setting a certain standard for guys coming in and the returning guys," said forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who should start next season. "USF is no longer a bottom-tier team. We're trying to make statements, to become a top-tier team, to earn respect, and I think we've done that this year."
After an entire season off campus, the Bulls will return to the Sun Dome, which is finishing a $35 million renovation. The new home, combined with the team's NCAA Tournament success, should combine for a larger following, which might only grow as the 2012-13 season progresses. Heath's biggest challenge might be in finding the same chemistry and cohesion that made this year's team such a close-knit family.
"This team was coachable. They listened. They bought in," Heath said. "They hugged each other. They lifted each other up. … It didn't happen at the beginning. It happened as time went on. And so it's really special to me."