TAMPA — Stan Heath's USF men's basketball team won't truly be complete until one month from today, when the Bulls gain the services of two impact players in transfers Mike Mercer and Gus Gilchrist.
But if the Bulls, 12-19 last season, are to make the improvement they seek in Heath's second season, becoming a relevant, competitive team in the Big East with postseason aspirations, they have to start winning and setting the tone in the six games before the cavalry arrives.
"We have prepared from Day 1 to play without those guys," Heath said. "When we come to practice, the focus is on the guys who can play: 'This is what we have to work with, let's get ready to win some games.' "
USF's strength will be its backcourt, where leading scorer Dominique Jones is back after a breakout freshman season, with senior Jesus Verdejo and junior Chris Howard also returning as starters. Finding complementary scoring threats to keep defenses from keying on Jones is a focus, especially for his fellow guards.
"I think we have a lot more scorers," said Howard, a third-year starter who will be pushed by Mercer. "Our guard play should be able to match up with pretty much anybody in our conference."
The addition of Mercer, a transfer from Georgia, will take away from Verdejo and Howard's minutes, but the two have responded by elevating their offensive games in exhibitions.
Jones, who averaged 17.1 points last season, must adjust to becoming a focal point of defenses that had to account for All-Big East center Kentrell Gransberry last season.
"I feel like anybody, one on one, can't guard me," said Jones, who ranked second on the team with 86 assists last season. "If somebody has to help (guard), I'm just dishing and the guys around me can hit shots. It's going to be hard to double-team me because of that."
To gain the confidence they'll need to win in the Big East, the Bulls must first find success in their non-league schedule, which has four RPI top-100 opponents from last season in Vanderbilt, UAB, Oral Roberts and Wright State, plus a game Wednesday at Virginia.
USF, which lost Gransberry to graduation, has four largely untested frontcourt players.
B.J. Ajayi, a 6-9 senior who started 13 games at power forward last season, will be the starting center, with 6-7 freshman Eladio Espinosa expected to start at forward. Senior Aris Williams and junior Alex Rivas Sanchez, working to recover from knee and leg injuries, will provide depth.
Gilchrist, a talented 6-10 forward who can shoot 3-pointers, could be a differencemaker for the Bulls, who have gone 7-43 in three seasons of Big East play.
"I know we're looking forward to the Virginia game, the UAB game, the UCF game, but I know we have other teams we have to take care of, too," Jones said.
Jones wasn't among 14 named by league coaches to the preseason All-Big East team and honorable mentions. That's more a function of him playing on a team at the bottom of the standings, but that, too, is something he is motivated to change.
"It surprised me," said Jones, the league's fourth-highest returning scorer. "Am I worried about it? Am I mad? No, because it means people don't expect me. Most of the guys on the first team, honorable mention that I played against, I played better than they played. The only (opinion) that matters is the people that sign your scholarship."