Despite winning 18 games last season, the most during coach Seth Greenberg’s tenure, and earning 10 Conference USA victories, there is one word that comes to most fans’ minds when thinking back to the 2000-01 campaign – disappointing.
The general consensus was the Bulls were a team on the cusp of a breakout season after the 1999-00 squad posted 17 wins and appeared in the National Invitation Tournament. After all, the Bulls were returning four starters, featuring a pair of proven scorers in Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon and four role-accepting, senior leaders. ESPN The Magazine called USF “the best team you haven’t heard of,” and some publications even went so far as to anoint South Florida a Sweet 16 team.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Big Dance – the clock struck midnight before the Bulls made it to the ball.
“It was disappointing, very disappointing,” Jackson said. “I mean, we had a great team. It was hard, especially down the stretch. That’s where it counted.”
Murphy’s Law seemed to grab the Bulls by the horns and wrestle them to their knees. Just when it seemed as if nothing else could go wrong, it did. When it appeared the Bulls had shot themselves in the foot for the final time, they shot themselves in the other foot.
“We were angry,” sophomore Gerrick Morris said. “Things didn’t happen for us the way we wanted and it was disappointing.”The Bulls dropped heartbreaking nail-biters to quality teams (Wisconsin in OT), then turned around and blew a game to a conference doormat (Tulane). The Bulls shot free throws (60 percent) as if they were being checked at the charity stripe by Shaquille O’Neal, endured suspensions (B.B. Waldon, Altron Jackson and Artha Reeves) and came unglued down the stretch, losing four of their last five including a season-ending 77-74 crippler to Charlotte in the C-USA Tournament.
USF was not invited to the NCAA Tournament, then was slapped in the face by not being selected for the NIT.
“Quite honestly, when our season ended all I thought about was what we needed to do to get better,” coach Seth Greenberg said.
And the Bulls get to wipe the slate clean this season beginning Nov. 19 when they face Fordham in the opener. Kohn said after a summer filled with “what if’s,” the best panacea for the indigestion last season caused is to start playing again.
“Obviously we were disappointed,” guard Reggie Kohn said. “But at the same time you could look and see the things we did wrong, the mistakes we made, build on that and say at that time, I can’t wait until next year. And now it’s here.”
IT TAKES TWO
USF’s offense will once again run through the capable hands of Jackson and Waldon, who finished last season as the ninth highest scoring tandem in the country at 36 ppg. For the past two years, Greenberg has been able to consistently count on solid point production from Jackson and Waldon night after night.
“It’s nice going into the game knowing you have 40 in the bank,” Greenberg said. “If B.B and Altron are right, they both have the ability to get 20.”
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Jackson (1,401) and Waldon (1,455) should both topple former Charlotte guard DeMarco Johnson’s (1,763) all-time C-USA record for career points. Waldon gets extremely good body positioning on the interior and is a force on the offensive and defensive boards. He can take over a game inside with an array of post moves, but poor free-throw shooting (51 percent) proved to be his Achilles heel. Waldon is solid from 15 feet out, and, amazingly enough, he shot nearly as well from three-point territory (50 percent) as he did from the free-throw line.
Jackson’s offensive arsenal is a bit more diverse. He can create shots off the dribble, catch and shoot with anyone in the country and run the floor in transition. Jackson rarely turns the ball over, has three-point capability and plays well off Waldon.
Offensively, there may be similarities in Jackson and Waldon’s games, but defensively speaking, the chasm between them could not be farther. Jackson is the catalyst in the Bulls 1-3-1 trapping defense, and his wingspan and good anticipation leads to easy buckets in transition. Waldon, although he reads passing lanes well, has a tendency to reach on defense and a propensity to pick up silly fouls, forcing him to miss crucial court time last season.
Although the Bulls will need similar, if not better, production from the pair, it will likely be Waldon and Jackson’s supporting cast that will ultimately decide if the Bulls make the NCAAs for the first time in a decade.
At center, Greenberg will most likely rotate bodies depending on the situation. Morris, who set the single game C-USA record for blocked shots in a game with 11 against George Washington last year, has long arms and is a quick leaper. Morris’ timing for blocking shots is excellent, but he looked lost in the Bulls offense at times last season.
However, what Morris lacks on the offensive end, Will McDonald makes up for with his production. McDonald shed pounds this summer (21 to 11 percent body fat) and has a nice touch around the paint. Expect McDonald to provide more output than last season’s 3.4 ppg.
“Will’s worked very hard and he’s earned an opportunity to play,” Greenberg said. “He can make shots and he’s an effective rebounder when he wedges and pushes people under the backboard because his lower body is so strong.”
Senior Mike Bernard is the biggest question mark among the Bulls trio of centers. Bernard will miss the beginning of the season (five games) for illegally participating in a summer league, but would have been limited in those games due to a shoulder injury sustained in preseason workouts. But he is a big body (6-11, 280) who can wear down opposing centers with his size.
Reggie Kohn (6.5 ppg, 3.5 apg) returns for his third straight season running the team at the point. Although Kohn’s three-point accuracy dipped last year from 38 to 30 percent, he is enough of a pure shooter to expect that number will rise again this season. He is a good floor leader, and Greenberg said the arrival of freshman point guard Brian Swift has been good for Kohn.
“I think Brian has been good for Reggie and vice versa,” Greenberg said. “They’re pushing each other and the competition has improved them both.”
Up until Wednesday, it appeared junior college transfer Greg Brittian would be the guy to replace Cedric Smith at the off guard. But Brittian was suspended indefinitely for failing to meet team academic requirements, and his status for the start of the season is uncertain. Brittian was originally recruited by the Bulls out of high school but elected to go to Central Florida Community College where his 19.4 ppg ranked 19th in the nation.
“We’re more athletic (than last year),” Greenberg said. “I think we’re deeper, but we’re not as experienced, so we have to make that up in other ways.”
What the Bulls will miss in lost experience from last year, they will make up for in depth. At the wings, the Bulls have capable, athletic backups in Jimmy Baxter (2.5 ppg) and freshmen Marlyn Bryant, Kelvin Brown and Terrence Leather. Baxter showed flashes in spurts but never saw enough consistent floor time to find his rhythm. The reigning C-USA high jump champion, Baxter is a tremendous leaper whose athleticism can cause problems in the Bulls’ 1-3-1 pressure defense.
Bryant’s playing time could increase significantly depending on the length of Brittian’s suspension. Bryant led Leesburg High to the 5A Region I championship game and was named state Player of the Year. Leather returns after fracturing his kneecap last season and receiving a redshirt. Brown was the Bulls’ top recruit last season and the most heralded since Waldon. Greenberg has raved about Brown’s toughness in preseason and the 6-8, 222-pound freshman should see the most playing time of all the rookies.
“(Brown’s) ability to compete, put the ball on the floor, make plays and offensive rebound are unique for a freshman,” Greenberg said. “He might be our toughest player, our most physical player.”
Swift has ankle-breaking quickness and will push Kohn for minutes. The combination of the two should give the Bulls 40 minutes of production from the point for the first time in the last few seasons. If Swift develops quickly, Greenberg might also slide Kohn to shooting guard at times.
“(Swift) only knows one speed, and that’s all out,” Greenberg said. “We’ll be much more efficient for 40 minutes at the point guard with the addition of Brian.”
Brandon Brigman, an active wide-body under the boards, will back up the Bulls’ three-headed center combination.
WILL THESE BULLS DANCE?
With the bitter taste of not reaching a post-season tournament last season still lingering in the Bulls’ mouths, this group will be hungry to shake the label of underachievers. The talent is in place. Now it will be a matter of executing, especially down the stretch where the Bulls lost their final three regular season games. The Bulls have 20-win capability, but potential doesn’t translate into victories. Chemistry is the unknown intangible, and if the Bulls can’t find the right mix for the postseason equation, the result will be the same as last year: disappointment.
- Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com