After finishing the 2008-09 season with a disappointing 9-22 record, the only direction the USF men’s basketball team can go is up, and coach Stan Heath is making sure the Bulls head in that direction.
As recruiting winds down, Heath needs to focus on improving last season’s poor performance with this year’s class.
The Bulls return seven players, including guard Dominique Jones, who led the team in points, steals and rebounds.
USF has lost several players as well.
Junior guard Mike Mercer was dismissed from the team Jan. 26 after he and teammate Anthony Crater were arrested for possession of marijuana.
Freshman guard Gaby Belardo and forward Eladio Espinosa both transferred. Belardo, who appeared in 18 games and averaged less than a point, transferred to Canisius while Espinosa, who averaged 1.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, said he wanted to be closer to home in North Carolina.
The Bulls also had three players graduate: guard Jesus Verdejo and forwards Aris Williams and Mobolaji Ajayi. Ajayi and Verdejo each suffered season-ending injuries while Williams played sparingly.
With Williams and Ajayi gone, USF is left with Augustus Gilchrist and Alex Rivas as the big men up front. One of Heath’s concerns is supporting the duo.
“That’s absolutely where we need guys. That’s where we’re going to go (with recruiting),” he said after Belardo’s transfer last month.
He’s right. That’s exactly where USF has to strengthen in the off-season, and this year’s
incoming class is the answer.
USF has signed five new recruits: post players Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and junior college
All-American Jarrid Famous, and guards Jordan Dumars, Mike Burwell Jr. and Shaun Noriega.
Crater, who transferred from Ohio State last season, will also be eligible to join the team in mid-December.
Famous is the most talented player of this year’s class, being one of 10 players named to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I All-American first-team. Listed at 6-foot-11, he’s also rated as the 11th best junior college player.
As a sophomore at Westchester Community College, Famous averaged 25.2 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. His size will help the Bulls against taller players in the Big East such as Georgetown’s 6-foot-10 forward Greg Monroe, who helped the Hoyas defeat USF 65-40 last season.
Fitzpatrick, a Tampa native from King High School, chose USF over in-state rivals Miami and Florida State, as well as several SEC schools. Like Famous, Fitzpatrick averaged a double-double as a senior with 14 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
Both Fitzpatrick and Famous will help give Rivas and Gilchrist plenty of rest and even challenge them for starting spots.
Burwell Jr. is another recruit who averaged a double-double during his final year of high school. Burwell averaged 27.8 points his senior year and 16 points per game at prep school, and also excels at free-throw shooting — an area in which USF ranked last in the Big East last season.
Dumars, son of former Detroit Piston standout Joe Dumars, may not put up the big numbers, but he brings something else to the table: being part of a winning program.
Dumars attended Detroit Country Day High School, which went 24-2 his senior season and finished No. 1 in Michigan. He also adds excellent free-throw and three-point shooting, hitting 80 percent and 42 percent, respectively.
USF’s final recruit, North Port High School’s Shaun Noriega will also help the Bulls in three-point shooting. Noriega finished his career at North Port with over 1,900 career points, which is a school record.
Each year, fans are let down by the blowout losses and the heartbreaking finishes that the men’s basketball team endures. With the 2009 signing class, Heath has a chance to finally start moving the program in the right direction.