USF men enter Utah State, FSU gauntlet on 3-game win streak

The Bulls face the Aggies tonight in Houston, then play the Seminoles in Sunrise three days later
USF junior Justin Brown, blocking the shot of Arkansas-Pine Bluff forward Markedric Bell (3) in the season opener, ranks third on the team with 8.8 points a game.
USF junior Justin Brown, blocking the shot of Arkansas-Pine Bluff forward Markedric Bell (3) in the season opener, ranks third on the team with 8.8 points a game. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2019|Updated Dec. 18, 2019

After a snake-bitten preseason in which it lost two low-post standouts, USF appears to be successfully adjusting to its new normal.

During their three-game win streak, the Bulls (6-4) have averaged 14 turnovers and 39 rebounds, noticeable improvements from their first seven contests (16.1 turnovers, 33.3 boards). Meantime, additional offensive options continue emerging, noticeably junior Justin Brown (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg).

“Are we playing our best? Yeah, we’re playing our best,” coach Brian Gregory told reporters after Sunday’s 81-61 home win against Drexel. “But I think we can keep getting better.”

Now, this resurgent, re-calibrated group enters its most daunting week of non-conference play.

Related: USF men, women earn another doubleheader sweep at home

USF faces Utah State (10-2), a fringe top-25 team with one of the nation’s oldest rosters, tonight in Houston as part of The Battleground 2k19 (7:45 p.m., ESPN3). Three days later, it plays No. 19 FSU (8-2) in Sunrise (noon, FS2).

“We scheduled this (Utah State) game with the idea that we’d be playing a top-25 team on a neutral site,” Gregory said. “I know they lost a tough one (68-64 Saturday to BYU), but when the season’s over, that’s exactly where they’re gonna be, there’s no doubt about it.”

Gregory also scheduled the game with the idea he’d have reigning American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year Alexis Yetna and fellow 6-foot-8 forward Mayan Kiir to help neutralize an Aggies frontcourt featuring two 7-footers in the rotation.

But Yetna was lost for the year in early November to a knee injury, and Kiir has departed the program, essentially leaving Gregory with only two traditional post players.

The result was a 3-4 start, lowlighted by an embarrassing 70-53 home loss to IUPUI on Nov. 13. Since then, Gregory’s club gradually has jelled into a tenacious, mostly efficient team that is slowly easing the scoring burden on junior David Collins (15.3 ppg) and senior Laquincy Rideau (13.2 ppg).

In each of their six victories, the Bulls have had at least three double-figure scorers. In three of their four defeats, they’ve had only two. They enter Wednesday’s contest leading the AAC in scoring defense (59.4 ppg) and a respectable fifth in rebound margin (plus-4.9).

“You take a look at it, there was probably a game and a half in the Caymans where we didn’t defend the way we needed to defend,” said Gregory, whose club lost two of three on that excursion.

“But even you go before that, the game against Wofford (a 69-55 win), we started kind of figuring it out, started playing better. And then the last few games, defensively we’re obviously much improved and offensively starting to find some areas where we kind of can become more efficient.”