When senior Will McDonald received the call to step up the rebounding for the South Florida men’s basketball team, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
Before the Bulls’ Jan. 29 matchup against Houston, USF coach Seth Greenberg called McDonald on the phone, challenging him to step up his performance on the boards.
“(He said) ‘Will, I want you to get more rebounds than what you’ve been doing. I know you can rebound, but I want you to pick it up and get more rebounds,'” McDonald said. “Most games he says, ‘I want you to get 12 to 15 rebounds.'”
Before the game against the Cougars, McDonald averaged 7.7 boards per game. In the three games after Greenberg’s challenge, he has averaged 11 rebounds per game, including 12 against Houston.
McDonald looks to continue the trend Saturday against Saint Louis, when the Bilikens (11-7, 2-6 in Conference USA) travel to the Sun Dome for a 6 p.m. game.
“Coach has been challenging me to pursue the balls, and basically telling me that I’m bigger than a lot of people, so I should get more rebounds than I do,” McDonald said. “I’m starting to find it fun to get rebounds.”
McDonald’s increase in rebounding has come despite playing against some of the top big men in the league, including Houston’s Louis Truscott, who is Conference USA’s No. 1 rebounder, averaging 12.6 per game, No. 3 Jamal Brown of TCU with 9.2 and No. 4 Erroyl Bing of ECU grabbing 8.6 boards per game.
“It’s a challenge, especially since the last few games I’ve been going against the leading rebounders in our conference,” McDonald said. “I’m always trying to push myself more. If somebody is supposed to be the best at doing something, then I want to be the best.”
Though as McDonald added more than three rebounds per game, that isn’t USF’s (11-8, 4-4) biggest improvement on the glass.
Yusuf Baker, the freshman power forward, went from 3.3 rebounds per game to 7.1 in the last three games.
Baker spent part of the beginning of the season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered this summer, then had to learn USF’s system and break into the starting lineup before he could show his rebounding mettle.
“Me playing more and my coach giving me assignments (led to more rebounds),” Baker said. “(Greenberg is) having me go out and rebound, that’s one of my strong points. I get as many rebounds as I can, and I just let the offense come.”
Another factor leading to Baker’s improvement in rebounding is the Bulls’ switch to a mostly zone defense.
The Bulls have been playing a 2-3 zone, placing three players under the basket at all times, or a 3-2 zone, where two players are always under the basket.
“A lot of it is that we have been playing the zone,” said USF assistant coach Brian Yankelevitz, who mostly deals with forwards and centers. “Those guys are around the basket a lot more. Those guys are around all the missed shots in the zone and we have been playing a lot of zone the last six games.”
Being in the zone has also eased Baker’s transition from high school to Division I college basketball.
“Zone has helped Yusuf because defensively, it takes a while to understand our man to man (defense),” Greenberg said. “He played zone his whole high school career.
“Are we switching, not switching, taking the low cut away, the high cut away, are you trapping the pick-and-roll? Those things were a foreign language to him. This obviously was an easier transition.”
After making the transition, Baker is starting to show that he can be a top rebounder for the future at USF.
“Yusuf has a chance to be a great rebounder,” Yankelevitz said. “He is athletic and quick off the floor. His arms are extremely long and getting stronger. He is starting to get a feel for where the balls are being missed. He has a chance to be a great rebounder.”
Baker is also considered a good rebounder because he can chase the ball out of his area.
“Rebounding to me is rebounding out of your area,” Greenberg said. “Guys that pursue the ball are Yusuf and Terrence (Leather).”Baker prides himself on his ability to get the rebound and his determination for the ball.
“When the ball goes up, I just have a determination that I have to get the ball,” Baker said. “I try not to let the other team get the ball. When a ball goes up it’s mine or nobody else’s. If I don’t get it, I make sure either my teammates get it or the other team doesn’t get it. I have a knack for the ball.”
The combo of McDonald and Baker is currently one of the best in C-USA.
The two have come togetherto form a good pair.
“I enjoy playing with Will,” Baker said. “He motivates me. Everything he tells me, I listen to.”
“He brings out a lot in me too, because he rebounds the ball,” McDonald said. “He just takes it out of guys’ hands because he’s strong. He complements my game.”
As McDonald’s career starts to come to an end he holds Baker’s future in high regard.
“I don’t think there is (anyone) as good as me and Yusuf right now at rebounding,” McDonald said. “To be honest, I don’t think there is anyone in our conference as good as Yusuf. If he played a long amount of time, and he had that chance without being in foul trouble, he would be the best rebounder in our conference.
“He’s going to be a great player. He is going to be one of USF’s top players.”