TAMPA — The USF men’s basketball season opener on Wednesday was far from perfect. But the 94-84 victory over visiting Florida College was — after some rust was knocked off in the first half — ripe with promise.
Perhaps the most intriguing element was the return of 6-foot-8 forward Alexis Yetna, who had not played in a game since March 2019 after blowing out his left knee just before the start of last season.
On Wednesday, Yetna, the 2019 American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, played 12 productive minutes with nine points on 3-of-3 shooting and four rebounds. He showed no signs of weakness or fear, even charging into the sideline seats after a loose ball.
“(Yetna) has had some contact in practice, but it was really great to see him out there in a game,” said USF coach Brian Gregory, who planned to keep Yetna’s minutes to 15 or less. “He knows only one way to play and that’s all out, and he showed some of that. He looked good, now it’s just a matter of knocking off some rust.”
Other highlights included the debut of freshman guard Caleb Murphy, who came to the Bulls as the No. 72-ranked player in the nation by ESPN. He did not disappoint in his 23 minutes, with seven assists, four rebounds and three points — all while deftly handling the ball and making a couple of big-time passes, including an on-the-move, alley-oop from around the three-point line to Jamir Chaplin, who slammed the ball through the hoop.
“Obviously I have great expectations for (Murphy),” Gregory said. “I thought overall he played well. There were (a couple of breakaway layup misses) he could have finished, but maybe that had something to do with first-game jitters and being a little too excited.
“The biggest challenge for him moving forward will be that he will be sort of thrown to the wolves (with immediate big-game experience). He’s going to have to be able to respond to some frustration and be able to bounce back.”
Murphy may also get some extra playing time early this season, because one of the Bulls’ most productive guards, junior Xavier Castaneda has been “a little banged up,” Gregory said. Castaneda did not play on Wednesday.
The good news for the Bulls is that they still have plenty of backcourt talent to draw from, including David Collins, who finished Wednesday with a team-high 17 points, followed by guards Justin Brown (15) and Chaplin (14).
“(Chaplin) has worked hard and has gotten better and better in every part of the game,” Gregory said. “It was nice to see tangible evidence of his improvement in the game after what he’s been doing in practice.”
The beginning of Wednesday’s game, however, wasn’t so smooth, as Florida College (5-4) led for the vast majority of the first half. USF, in fact, didn’t take more than a one-point lead until a few minutes into the second half.
In the waning minutes, the Bulls finally took command in pretty much every way, including at the foul line, where they were perfect on their last 10 free-throw attempts. USF finished the game 15-for-20 from the line, an area Gregory said he wanted to improve upon.
Next up is the Basketball Hall of Fame Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament in Connecticut against Rhode Island and Virginia Tech on Saturday and Sunday, games that will no doubt provide a much stiffer test.
“(Rhode Island) is one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10 and that is a good league, so we know they’re going to be tough to handle,” Gregory said. “But that will be good for us.”