TAMPA ― By the time UCF came to the Yuengling Center last February, USF men’s basketball had been salvaged from the Division-I dumpster by its second-year coach.
That lingering stench of mediocrity, which had caused fans to turn away for years, had been disinfected. When the Knights arrived, a crowd of more than 7,200 ―and an 18-win Bulls team ― awaited them. A discarded, broken program had been pieced back together.
But the refinishing job hadn’t been completed. UCF won by 12 that night, dropping the Bulls’ record to 0-7 against American Athletic Conference teams that would make the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
“Have we made dramatic improvements? Yeah,” Gregory said following that 75-63 defeat. “But we’re not quite good enough to beat those teams yet.”
Eight months later, the Bulls stand at the cusp of yet.
Even with Monday’s announcement that promising 6-foot-8 forward Alexis Yetna is lost for the year (knee), the 2019-20 season remains the most anticipated USF men’s hoops campaign since…well…at least the Heath era.
Maybe the hair-band era.
“Definitely for us to make the (NCAA) Tournament, I think we’ve got all the pieces there,” junior guard David Collins told veteran college hoops insider Andy Katz at the AAC’s preseason media day. “And we’re just ready to make that big step.”
A significant piece was lost when Yetna ― last season’s AAC Freshman of the Year ― went down Friday during a routine play in practice. Joining him on the sideline for now is 6-9 reserve Mayan Kiir, whom Gregory said remains an active member of the team but is out of the lineup indefinitely due to some personal issues.
“Obviously any time one of your brothers goes down, it’s a gut punch," Gregory said. "We’ve got a tough group of guys, but at the same time, you can be the toughest guy in the world, and that’s gonna impact you.”
Yet even with Monday’s grim news, the Bulls still ooze stability in an era when most collegiate rosters remain perpetually in flux.
Four starters return from last season’s 24-14 club that established a program record for victories and won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). Including Yetna, the Bulls had 178 combined starts, most of any AAC program. Now, that figure is 144.
The healthy returners include the league’s reigning defensive player of the year (point guard Laquincy Rideau), a coaches third-team All-AAC pick (Collins) and a rapidly improving 7-footer (sophomore Michael Durr).
Even with Yetna and Kiir out, the Bulls retain 69.8 percent of their scoring, 64.4 percent of their rebounding and 84.8 percent of their assists from last season.
“With only two freshmen on the team (6-foot-5 guard Jamir Chaplin and stocky 6-8 forward B.J. Mack), everybody else was returning,” Gregory said.
“We’ve done a lot more playing in practice, where we’ve been able to review some stuff and then just go out there and compete within that segment…where over the last two years it was maybe a lot more walking through stuff and showing ‘em and explaining why.
“They know how to do it, they know the why, now we just have to get better at it.”
Indeed, continuity alone won’t enable the Bulls to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2012.
While the relentless dribble penetration of USF’s guards resulted in a staggering 1,018 free-throw attempts, they didn’t make nearly enough of them. The Bulls ranked 334th in free-throw percentage (64.8) last season, and 300th in assist-turnover ratio (0.86).
Both areas were emphasized during an offseason and preseason that included a four-game summer trip to Canada in August and a recent closed scrimmage at Florida.
“We’ve got to do a better job taking care of the ball,” Gregory said after Tuesday’s 76-62 exhibition win against Division II Saint Leo, when the Bulls committed 18 turnovers.
“It’s one of our key points, something that we knew we had to do a better job if we want to make the strides as a team.”
Look for Rideau, whom Gregory calls the “soul” of the team, to play off the ball a tad more this year, thanks to perimeter depth. Sophomore Xavier Castaneda is back after a promising rookie year (4.3 ppg, 1.7 assists), and Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson is eligible after sitting out last season.
Durr (5.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), whom Gregory says is much stronger than he was as a rookie, becomes the frontcourt focal point, with greatly improved 6-10 senior Antun Maricevic (3.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg) likely playing a more prominent role. Also available is Madut Akec, a 6-7 freshman who redshirted last year after suffering a broken foot.
Collins, the team’s “heartbeat” according to his coach, enters his third season as a legitimate first-team all-conference candidate after averaging 15.9 points, 3.1 assists and two steals as a sophomore.
Collectively, the group will have opportunities ― early and often ― to notch the quality wins that eluded it last season.
USF faces 2018 Final Four qualifier Loyola Chicago in the Cayman Islands Classic later this month, and meets Utah State (17th in the AP preseason poll) and FSU (received votes) at separate neutral sites in a four-day span in December. Two shots at Memphis (14th) await in AAC play.
Two or three such marquee wins would constitute yet another breakthrough.
Could bracketology follow?
“I guarantee you there will be setbacks, that’s just part of college basketball,” Gregory said.
“Are you better than you were yesterday? That’s the only expectation that we have. And I have high expectations for our guys individually and collectively. If they meet mine, we’ll be all right.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.