Leap of faith preceded USF men’s vault to respectability

Brian Gregory never saw Justin Brown, David Collins or Alexis Yetna play in person before signing them
USF Bulls guard Justin Brown (13) drives to the basket during the first half at the Yuengling Center in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF Bulls guard Justin Brown (13) drives to the basket during the first half at the Yuengling Center in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published March 13, 2019|Updated March 13, 2019

TAMPA ― With each USF men’s basketball victory, the anecdote elicits more chuckles and less sympathy.

Brian Gregory has shared it often. At his first meeting as Bulls coach two springs ago, 11 players showed up. By the next meeting, four remained. The April signing period ― the late period ― was roughly a month away. With fewer bodies on board than Hickory High, Gregory and his staff had to work, and fast.

“We couldn’t be choosy during that time,” he said.

But they could be strategic. Gregory wanted at least three graduate transfers to help with the present, three freshmen to help for the future, and three “best available” prospects. The freshmen who ultimately signed: guards Justin Brown and David Collins, and forward Alexis Yetna.

“I had never seen any of 'em play live, ever,” Gregory said Monday.

“No one on the staff had seen 'em play live. We went out in the spring and got to see some open gyms, but we did a lot of film study on 'em, and that can get you some evaluation. But a lot was based on recommendations from their coaches and from other guys that had seen 'em and different things like that.”

Today, Collins is the Bulls’ top scorer (15.3 ppg) and a third-team All-American Athletic Conference pick. Yetna (12.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg), who sat out last season, has a league-most 11 double-doubles and on Wednesday was named AAC Freshman of the Year. Brown (8.5 ppg) leads USF in 3-pointers (57) and 3-point percentage (40.7).

Not coincidentally, the Bulls (19-12) find themselves one victory from the program’s fifth 20-win season.

“When you’re in a complete build-it-up mode like we were two years ago, you’ve got to catch a break,” Gregory said. “And we caught three of 'em.”

Related: USF’s David Collins, Laquincy Rideau make all-AAC team

The recruiting juxtaposition of Gregory and predecessor Orlando Antigua remains astounding. Only 26 months after Antigua’s dismissal, none of his signees remain on the roster (though some have flourished elsewhere).

By contrast, every Gregory signee of the last two seasons has made a contribution. The ones who haven’t are either injured (forward Madut Akec) or sitting out the season per NCAA transfer rules (guard Zack Dawson).

Few have contributed more significantly than Collins, Brown and Yetna, whose acceptance of Gregory’s scholarship offer required every bit the leap of faith as the offer itself.

“In meeting with the coaching staff and talking to 'em, I just believed in their vision,” said Collins, who leads USF into this week’s AAC Tournament in Memphis. “I was sold by what they were telling me. I came here, and we’re in the progress of making what they said would happen happen.”

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Collins acknowledges his recruiting didn’t really take off until moving to First Love Christian Academy ― just outside Pittsburgh ― for his final prep season. Initially recruited by Antigua’s staff, he said he chose USF over Akron and Duquesne.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Yetna, a France native, played one season at a Connecticut academy barely a half-hour from the University of Connecticut, but wasn’t offered by the Huskies. Gregory credits USF assistant Tom Herrion with discovering him. Additionally, Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens suggested Yetna would fit Gregory’s system.

Related: USF’s Alexis Yetna faces team that bypassed him

Brown, Gregory’s first signee at USF, received interest from a few mid-major programs (including Toledo, Troy, Buffalo) after a postgraduate season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy.

“We took those guys because we thought they could be good players from what we saw,” Gregory said. “But it was more through our phone conversations, and the three days that they spent on a visit, that sold us that those guys could be integral parts of what we were building.”

Two years later, that intuition has paid off handsomely.

In triplicate.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.