TAMPA — What began as a setback has evolved into a saga, one that's about to seep into 2014. As distractions go, Anthony Collins' bursa is starting to rival the Bucs' MRSA.
"It's been nightmare 101," USF coach Stan Heath said. "It's not what we anticipated at all when everything started back in September."
Back then, Collins — USF's sleek, seasoned point guard — was expected to miss a week or so of preseason drills while recovering from late summer surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac from his left knee.
But the swelling lingered, as did Collins' absence from full-scale drills. His trademark burst was shrouded by braces and cumbersome knee wraps. He returned by the third game of the season and remains the Bulls' assists leader (5.9 per game), but he has yet to regain the explosiveness of his first two seasons.
Now, it's uncertain if he'll regain it at all this winter. Collins' mended knee now has developed tendinitis, and he's not expected to play in tonight's American Athletic Conference opener against No. 18 Memphis (9-2).
The timetable for his return is anyone's guess, including his.
"My knee is like, a sharp pain whenever I walk and run. So basically that's what I'm dealing with right now," said Collins, the backcourt catalyst of USF's 2012 NCAA Tournament third-round run.
"Hopefully one day I just walk in and I feel much better. … That's when I'm going to come back, whenever my body tells me I'm ready to go."
With each game Collins stays in street clothes, the Bulls discover just how pivotal he remains to their postseason aspirations. When he's healthy, Heath said the Bulls are capable of contending with the upper crust of the AAC.
Without him, they've dropped two of their past three, including a one-point loss to Santa Clara in Las Vegas, when they collapsed at the free-throw line (9-for-24) and allowed the Broncos to rally late.
"I don't think we're playing poorly," Heath said. "I think the players are making the adjustment. I think some guys have really stepped their game up."
Among them is senior Victor Rudd (16.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who has found his niche at small forward thanks in part to the emergence of 6-foot-8 freshman Chris Perry (10.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) at power forward.
Meantime, junior college transfer Corey Allen (12.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) has proven a solid replacement at the point for Collins, though Heath would prefer to keep him at the wing, where his aggressiveness seems to be maximized.
Tonight, look for junior Shemiye McLendon to start at the wing while Allen runs the floor and likely plays extended minutes. Nonetheless, the Bulls believe they'll succeed with this group.
But they know they can sparkle with Collins.
"It's been all right (without Collins) until crunch time, the last four or five minutes of the game," Rudd said. "You miss a smart player and a good ball handler. We need him back, but we want him back healthy and ready to play."