Friday, June 22, 2018
USF Bulls

Did USF’s Brian Gregory deliver the AAC’s best coaching job?

It's naive to even suggest USF's Brian Gregory has a shot at the American Athletic Conference's Coach of the Year award, to be announced later today. The numbers simply aren't there — yet.

Postseason swag goes to those who win at least 20 games, not those who lose 21. Too many of Gregory's counterparts (Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, Houston's Kelvin Sampson) have sparkled, while the Bulls' first-year coach must settle for the modest sheen of a two-game league win streak.

So no sense conjuring any delusions about this award, voted on by the AAC coaches themselves. Just know this:

Though they may not have said so with their respective ballot, some of those peers probably agree Gregory's effort has been peerless.

"I honestly think this is the best coaching job he's ever done," said ESPN college basketball analyst Mark Adams, a head coach at three small-school programs during a 17-year college coaching tenure.

"And the reason I say that is because it's not just the basketball portion of the program that needed a lot of attention. It was everything."

Going off the data sheet alone, Gregory's case appears feeble at best. The Bulls are 10-21 overall and 3-15 in AAC play. They enter the league tournament Thursday in Orlando as the lowest-seeded team (12th), with zero top-100 RPI wins.

Their own RPI (as of Tuesday afternoon) is a ghastly 275.

But those who follow this stuff closely — the colleagues and commentators, boosters and bracketologists — know the job Gregory has pulled off in Year One transcends such metrics.

"Bulls should be interesting once Brian Gregory gets some players," CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein tweeted last week. "Excellent coach."

The situation he inherited from predecessor Orlando Antigua would need two promotions to reach dumpster fire. If the basketball season were a Gasparilla race, Cincinnati and Wichita State broke right at the downtown Tampa starting line. Gregory began a bit farther back.

Near Thonotosassa.

"I didn't think they would win a game in the American," Adams said. "I'm just being honest with you."

Related: USF's new basketball coach has a tough job. Here's how tough

Hired last March, Gregory, 51, inherited a team that won one AAC game in the 2016-17 season, and hadn't won more than nine contests in a season in four years. When he called his first team meeting, 11 players showed up. When he called his second, four remained.

The program also was in the final stages of an 18-month NCAA probe that ultimately determined former assistant Oliver Antigua had provided impermissible benefits to recruits. (Because USF cooperated fully with the investigation, its penalties were minor.)

Forced to cobble a roster — and staff — together on short notice beneath the ominous NCAA cloud, Gregory somehow signed nine players (three graduate transfers, three freshmen, and three "best available" prospects) in the span of a couple of recruiting weekends.

"That was a miracle in itself," Adams said. "Who the hell does that?"

Still, the Bulls were picked to finish dead last in the AAC. They did, a game behind 11th-place East Carolina. But again, it's all relative.

Considering where Gregory and Co. embarked, arguably no team in the league has made more progress. And not even college hoops stats extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy has a quotient to quantify resilience.

Even with another 20-loss season — and No. 12 tournament seed — secured, the Bulls have flourished instead of folded down the stretch, and enter the league tournament on a two-game win streak.

They led wire-to-wire in Thursday's 75-51 road embarrassment of Memphis (when they played zone defense almost exclusively), then rallied from a five-point halftime deficit Sunday for a 65-54 home win against SMU (when they went strictly man-to-man).

"We're playing our best basketball of the year," Gregory said. "Guys' attitudes have been tremendous."

In their last five games, the Bulls are out-rebounding their opposition, and shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range while holding foes to a grim 26.2. Meantime, freshman G David Collins (9.2 ppg, 2.4 assists) has evolved into the program's most viable offensive threat since PF Victor Rudd in 2014.

Collins, who has reached double figures in eight of his last nine games, made the AAC All-Rookie team on Monday.

"I don't like USF's talent for the American," Adams said. "I think there's individual guys there; David Collins was a great get for them. But this was a mix-and-match, put it together with some bailing-wire type of roster that has just done nothing but get better."

And if you really want to get Gregory beaming, bring up the collective classroom effort. USF, which endured no fewer than five player suspensions in Antigua's 2 1/2 seasons, boasted 11 players with GPAs of 3.0 or better in the fall semester.

"Their citizenship has been really noted," athletic director Mark Harlan said in February. "I'm on campus quite a bit, I hear from faculty members, those kinds of things. And that has improved in all regards."

None of that likely made much of a splash in coach-of-the-year deliberations, which might stand to reason. Gregory, who couldn't get Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament in five seasons as Yellow Jackets coach, was hardly a splash hire.

To the contrary, he was noted as a meticulous grinder hailed for producing teams that brandish grades and grit. He knew the progress at USF would be far more ebb-and-flow than linear. He understood the initial leg of this journey would be rife with valleys.

Yet they head to Orlando one step from a six-year peak: A win Thursday in a rematch against Memphis would give USF its first three-game win streak in conference play since 2012 — when Stan Heath's Bulls made the NCAAs.

"He sold to me that we could turn it around, and I truly believe we can," said Collins, who had offers from no fewer than six other Division I programs. "We can get this program going."

That's quite the sell job, followed by quite the coaching job.

Possibly the best coaching job in the AAC this year. All things considered.

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