By Jon Rothstein
» More Columns
Stan Heath admitted he felt a change.
It started last spring in Tampa following the end of last season.
It continued when Heath was out in July during the recruiting period.
And the palpable buzz surrounding South Florida’s basketball program was felt this past week when college students returned to campus for the beginning of the fall semester.
Heath, who just led the Bulls to their first trip to the NCAA Tournament during his tenure as head coach knows the vibe surrounding his team is completely different than it’s ever been entering a new season.
“We’ve got a lot of good momentum going,” Heath said on Tuesday morning. “We’ve opened a brand new arena that’s state of the art and we’re about to begin our second year in our practice facility. There’s a lot of good things happening here.”
But even when you have some success, you still have to deal with doses of adversity.
South Florida received unfortunate news last week when Waverly Austin, a 6-11 junior college transfer who committed to the Bulls was ruled ineligible to play during the upcoming season. Austin, who was slated to be Heath’s starting center will now look to play elsewhere.
“It’s a jolt,” Heath said of losing Austin. “We’re going to have to look at different ways to be successful. We’re really strong one through four. It’s the five spot that’s a big question. We might be able to put a better team out there in terms of scoring points but we may not be as good defensively as we were last season.”
South Florida is loaded with wings but lacks legitimate depth on the interior, something that was critical in getting the Bulls into the field of 68 last March. Veteran big man Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, whom Heath called “the key guy on our front line” and Florida Atlantic transfer Kore White are the only two experienced big men on South Florida’s roster.
White especially, will play a major role.
“We initially thought he would be a 20 minute type guy,” Heath said of White, who averaged 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last year at FAU. “Now without Waverly, he might be a 30 minute guy. His role magnifies quite a bit.”
Small ball — a common term among basketball junkies, could be a more likelier route for South Florida. With the Bulls’ surplus of wings, playing four skilled players at once could be something that Heath does with regularity — but that will depend heavily on Victor Rudd.
The 6-9 forward averaged 15 points and just over seven rebounds per game during South Florida’s three NCAA Tournament games last year and seems ready to become one of the better players in the Big East. If Rudd continues that type of production, Heath could regularly play him at power forward.
“He’s added parts to his game,” Heath said of Rudd. “He’s got some post up options now and has really worked on his ball handling. He’s a real difficult match up. At the end of last year, we scored the ball a little bit better and Victor was one of the main reasons why.”
With Rudd and sophomore point guard Anthony Collins back, Heath has two players that he should be able to lean on in big spots. Collins was one of the surprise stories of last season and engineered several close victories for the Bulls down the stretch in February and March thanks to his superb decision making.
Junior college transfer Musa Abdul-Aleem figures to emerge as a potent scorer and could start at shooting guard next to Collins.
“He adds a dimension we didn’t have last year,”Heath said of the 6-5 Abdul-Aleem. “He can shoot the ball from the perimeter.”
Heath is also high on South Alabama transfer Martino Brock, a player who should be able to help South Florida at both ends of the floor.
“He will handle the defensive role that Hugh Robertson held down last season,” Heath said of Brock. “He’s also our second best option off the dribble offensively.”
Veterans Jawanza Poland and Shaun Noriega will also be back to add depth on the wings and freshman Javontae Hawkins figures to be a factor in the rotation.
The loss of Austin will change the way this team plays and Heath knows that. Still, the culture in Tampa is significantly different than it’s been, and now it’s up to Collins, Rudd, Fitzpatrick, and probably Abdul-Aleem to keep it that way.
“We’ve taken our program to another level,” Heath said. “We don’t want to go backwards.”
What’s your prediction for South Florida? Be heard in the comments below!