If there's any player who can relate to the up-and-down nature of the USF men's basketball season, which has included both a seven-game winning streak and its current seven-game losing streak, it's freshman Orane Chin.
The 6-foot-7 forward, born and raised in Jamaica, has been in and out of coach Stan Heath's good graces, alternately promising and frustrating, going from starter to the end of the bench and back. He hit his first six 3-pointers, including three in a key November win against Florida State, but has gone 3-for-19 beyond the arc since.
Tonight, as the Bulls seek their second Big East win against a similarly strugglingSt. John's team, they also seek two elusive things from the freshman: focus and consistency.
"The coaches really try to push me a lot, toward focusing, practicing harder," said Chin, who played 29 minutes Tuesday in a loss at Marquette, his most significant playing time since December. "They think I have a lot of potential to do things."
Heath thought enough of Chin to make him his first signing after coming to USF in the spring, recruiting him out of Miramar High. Chin had played well in a showcase in Las Vegas, scoring 30 in one game and convincing Heath he had a potential impact player at a position of need. Chin has started 14 of the Bulls' 21 games, and Heath said his ups and downs, while frustrating at times, aren't unusual for a young player pressed into a major role.
"This has been a typical kind of freshman year for any true freshman," Heath said. "He's had some highs and lows. I think he's responded by just doing what he can do to get himself ready. At times you wonder, 'Is it too much? Is it overwhelming for him?' He's a very good athlete, and I think he has a chance to contribute more than he's doing.
"Every day we have to keep pushing Orane to play at the level he can play at."
Chin isn't your typical freshman. He hadn't played basketball until he moved to the United States in sixth grade. Before that, he was a soccer player, an athletic forward, following in the footsteps of his 6-foot-8 brother, Christopher, who is nine years older and helped raise him in Jamaica. Chin's name reflects his heritage as a Chinese Jamaican, though he said he is "a tenth of a percent" Chinese, on his father's side.
Teammates see the potential in Chin, raving about a dunk in practice, urging him to be more aggressive in games, more dedicated in preparation for them.
"When he puts his mind to it, he can do anything he wants," senior center Kentrell Gransberry said. "He can be a great defender, and his athleticism is off the charts."
Chin hopes to find the same success he had in high school in Miami and at Miramar, and he has supporters there who see that in his future.
"Orane has the skills and talent not just to contribute but to excel at South Florida," said Jon Fels, a family friend whose son Ian played AAU ball with Chin. "The growth that kids go through as freshmen, emotionally and physically, that maturation process is a challenge all along the way. One of the reasons he picked USF is that he knew the coaches would challenge him, would work to get the most out of his skills."
The key for USF is getting more of that focus. Two weeks ago, Heath sat Chin for a key home game against West Virginia, saying he hadn't shown the commitment in practice after playing three minutes in a loss at Seton Hall.
He has been a starter in two games since, and teammates have seen more confidence and a more relaxed approach. He and Gransberry joke about who has more dunks, with Chin arguing Gransberry's total is high because he "snowbirds," or doesn't always hurry up the court on defense, leaving him in position for easy fastbreak passes.
"He feels I got a couple boosted from snowbirding," Gransberry said. "He's more athletic than I am, and he's shown flashes at times. He's got great hops, and in time, he'll be a great player in the years to come here."
USF vs. St. John's
7 tonight, Sun Dome, TampaTV/radio: Catch 47; 1250-AM
USF vs. St. John's
When/where: 7; Sun Dome, Tampa
TV/radio: Catch 47;1250-AM
Records: USF 10-11, 1-7 Big East; St. John's 7-12, 1-7
Notable: It's a must-win if the Bulls want to keep alive hopes of making the Big East Tournament. These teams are tied for last in the league standings, having lost a combined 13 in a row. St. John's has played well on the road, with close losses at Syracuse (by six), West Virginia (nine) and Louisville (10). The Red Storm's leading scorers are forwards: 6-7 Anthony Mason averages 14.3 points, and 6-8 Justin Burrell averages 11.7. USF's depth will be an issue, with starting guard Jesus Verdejo questionable after missing Tuesday's game at Marquette with a lower back injury and reserves Solomon Bozeman and Aris Williams limited by knee injuries. The Bulls continue to rely heavily on senior center Kentrell Gransberry (17 points, 11.1 rebounds) and freshman guard Dominique Jones (15.4 points). The Bulls have a quick turnaround, playing at Georgetown on Tuesday, then going to DePaul on Saturday. With 10 games remaining, USF is two games out of 12th place, which is the last team to make the league tournament. After tonight, only two of the remaining nine games are against teams with losing records in Big East play.
Greg Auman, Times staff writer