Veteran trio pacing new-look Bulls

The new-look USF men's basketball team likely will go only as far as its senior triumvirate takes it.
USF guard Terrence Samuel is among three graduate transfers leading the Bulls. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF guard Terrence Samuel is among three graduate transfers leading the Bulls. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Dec. 10, 2017

Nine games into the Brian Gregory era at USF, the program's short-term trajectory remains difficult to project.

Can the Bulls (4-5) finish with a winning record in non-conference play? Can it win at least five conference games for the first time since 2012? Is a 10-win season even too much to ask?

The answers (in order) are probably, possibly and perhaps. Some nights, Gregory's group appears serviceable. Other nights, substandard. The staff is new, the roster overhauled. Chemistry still is being forged, and the process likely will continue through March.

"We've been together a long time, but still, on the court, you have a certain amount of games together," senior 6-foot-6 G Payton Banks said. "So we're still trying to get a feel for each other."

All of which makes the immediate future hazy at best. A couple of key injuries (Troy Holston Jr., David Collins) have made it hazier. Yet if the fog has been lifted on one area, it's the elder sanctum of the roster.

Clearly, the Bulls will go only as far as their trio of graduate transfers — Banks, PG Stephan Jiggetts and G Terrance Samuel — can take them.

"Thrown into a difficult situation," Gregory said. "All of 'em in new roles, expanded roles, greater responsibility thrown on their shoulders. But you couldn't ask for more than what they've done for us."

With nine scholarships following USF's offseason coaching change (and ensuing player exodus), Gregory had to be strategic in utilizing them. Because signing nine freshmen in one class would leave him with hardly any to give in 2018, he chose to sign three freshmen, three "best-available" players, and three grad transfers.

Enter Banks (Penn State), Samuel (Penn State by way of Connecticut) and Jiggetts (Fairleigh Dickinson). Entering Monday night's game against FIU (the start of a five-game home stretch), those three have played more minutes than anyone.

They also have emerged as the Bulls' three best free-throw shooters (Jiggetts and Samuel both are shooting better than 90 percent) and three most efficient 3-point shooters. Banks (13.4 ppg) and Jiggetts (12.1 ppg) are the top two scorers, while Samuel (4.3 apg) and Jiggetts (2.9) are the two assists leaders.

"It's a hard process bringing all these players in at once," Banks said. "But I feel like it starts with us three and our maturity, and we can lead the rest to help us win."

All three share the same schedule — from study hall to practice to film-session times to one-on-one meetings with Gregory. They also happen to reside in the same apartment complex. Banks and Jiggetts even share the same birthday (May 20).

"So I'm with them 24-7," Jiggetts said.

Together, they represent the bridge to the future, providing a productivity stopgap as they help nurture the youth around them.

Occasionally, that bridge can wobble.

USF finds itself on a three-game skid. The Bulls struggled to score inside against Elon's sagging defense in a 79-78 loss on Nov. 30, and played arguably their worst game of the season in an 84-61 loss at Appalachian State two nights later.

Which leads to another component the three share: accountability.

"We definitely need to step it up a lot," said Banks, who combined with Jiggetts and Samuel to hit only six of 23 3-pointers in losses to Eastern Michigan and Appalachian State.

"If we're taking all those shots, we need to shoot better percentages. And I think that comes with trusting other guys to make plays and trusting in (Gregory) that he's gonna get us those open shots instead of taking a lot of contested and hard ones."

If the trio can lift its game, perhaps more fog is lifted from a season of transition.

Veteran value
A look at where USF graduate transfers Payton Banks, Stephan Jiggetts and Terrence Samuel rank on the team in some key areas:

Scoring: Banks 13.4 ppg (1st), Jiggetts 12.1 (2nd), Samuel 8.0 (5th)
Assists: Banks 1.1 apg (4th), Jiggetts 2.9 (2nd), Samuel 4.9  (1st)
3-point% (min. 10 tries): Banks 35.6 (3rd), Jiggetts 39.5 (1st), Samuel n/a
Minutes: Banks 29.8 mpg (3rd), Jiggetts 32.3 (1st), Samuel 32.0 (2nd)
FT% (min. 15 tries): Banks 78.3 (3rd), Jiggetts 94.7 (1st), Samuel 94.1 (2nd)