TAMPA — It has not been the nonconference schedule that men's basketball coach Stan Heath envisioned when he entered this season, hopeful that USF could improve on a 20-win season despite losing its top scorer in NBA first-rounder Dominique Jones.
The most recent drama saw forward Augustus Gilchrist suddenly leave the team for two games then, after an apology to Heath and his teammates, rejoin the team; he will make his return tonight as the Bulls face a tough test at Cleveland State (12-1). Gilchrist has been back since Friday, watching Saturday's loss to James Madison from the bench, and the process of rebuilding his chemistry after the awkward split is ongoing, Heath said.
"I've been pleased. On the court, it's come along very well," Heath said Tuesday. "We're mending, and I think we're moving forward. Everybody is pushing toward a common goal of winning. Off the court, I think that takes a little more time, but I'm more concerned with on the court."
After going 10-2 in nonconference games last year, the Bulls are 6-6, and while all the teams to beat USF have at least eight wins — they're a combined 51-13 — Heath needed wins to build confidence in a team of newcomers, more than close losses to teach them lessons.
"We've slipped up. We have nobody to blame but ourselves," Heath said. "We've got to turn the corner and get back on the right track. With so many new guys, winning will help their psyche. So we're really in need of a win."
Heath has the consolation, or frustration, of knowing that all the losses have been by eight points or fewer, and that his team held solid leads in most of its losses.
"We've played everybody wire-to-wire with great opportunities to win, and yet we've come up short," he said. "It tells me one thing, that we're not far off. We've got to fix it so we can win these games."
As was the case last season, Heath doesn't seem to have confidence to give his reserve guards significant minutes. Shooters Mike Burwell and Shaun Noriega played five and nine minutes, respectively, against James Madison on Saturday, which is a lot compared to his backup point guards. Junior Shedrick Haynes had a three-minute cameo, while freshman LaVonte Dority didn't make it on the court.
"There's a lot of new guys who haven't played at this level before. The intensity level and focus of the game makes it very challenging," he said. "I'm not pleased with our bench. I want to get more out of them. I think we can get more out of them. I think guys like Shaun and Mike especially can step up and do more for us."
The first Big East games won't be easy. After a trip to Seton Hall on Tuesday, the Bulls go to No. 4 Connecticut on Dec. 31, then return home to face No. 8 Villanova on Jan. 6, followed by Louisville, which could be ranked by the time it comes to town.
THIS AND THAT: Among the gifts USF's football players get for playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl is a Bulova watch and rolling duffel bag. … USF is offering students a package for the Charlotte bowl: $130 includes bus transportation, two nights in a hotel and a game ticket.
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.