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Centers prove 3 is not a crowd

The Chicago Bulls are the owners of six NBA Championship rings. The USF Bulls would settle for one national championship.Besides sharing the same nickname, the two teams have not exactly mirrored each other in terms of success. USF has never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, while Chicago spent the majority of the ’90s dominating the basketball landscape.

But look a little closer and there is one striking similarity – both Bulls teams utilized a successful, working rotation at center.During the majority of its heyday, Chicago featured Will Perdue, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington in the middle. The USF Bulls’ (11-3, 2-0 in Conference USA) version of the three-headed center monster consists of Mike Bernard, Will McDonald and Gerrick Morris.

“They each kind of do a little bit of everything,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “If I could put them together, we’d have a lottery pick.”

But the monster was missing one of its heads early in the season as Bernard served an NCAA-imposed eight-game suspension for illegal participation in a European summer league. With Bernard sidelined, Morris received the majority of minutes for the first five games. During that stretch, Morris did exactly what the Bulls need from the lanky 6-foot-10, 210-pound sophomore – wreak havoc in USF’s interior defense. Morris twice registered eight blocked shots in those five games.

“Gerrick Morris affects the game on the defensive end,” Greenberg said. “He changes shots, he challenges shots – he’s always in the back of your mind.”

McDonald, who shed inches during the summer by dropping his body fat from 21 to 11 percent, registered a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) in the opener against Fordham, but had his breakout performance in the seventh game against Northern Illinois. McDonald put the Bulls on his back, scoring 28 points en route to a 79-74 USF road win. Since then, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound junior’s minutes have increased significantly. McDonald is third on the Bulls (10.4 point per game) and has scored double-digits in every game but one since Northern Illinois.

“I think that Will McDonald’s ability to run the floor and finish has been terrific,” Greenberg said. “And he’s been defending better. He’s got to continue to defensive rebound better and be more of a presence on the defensive end.”

And then there’s Bernard.

At a gigantic 6-foot-11, 280 pounds, Bernard might not have the offensive touch of McDonald or the seemingly endless length of Morris’ arms, but he is certainly the least favorite for opposing centers to bang with in the paint. Bernard is a bruising wide-body with a strong inside game but has deceptively quick feet for a man his size.

“(Bernard) has the best power game around the basket,” Greenberg said. “I was really pleased with Mike (against Southern Miss) because that was the best low-post defense he’s played in terms of creating, getting guys off the blocks, sealing the basket and challenging shots.”

Since his return Dec. 20 against Syracuse, Bernard has seen a steady increase in his minutes and has looked more comfortable on both ends of the floor. Greenberg said Bernard’s progressing, but he still has some room to improve as far as his game shape is concerned.

“He’s getting in playing shape and the better playing shape he gets in, the quicker he’s going to be,” Greenberg said. “He still doesn’t have the quickness of changing ends and the quickness to react the way I’d like him to.”

Like a pitcher in baseball, Greenberg has the option to throw a fastball, curve or changeup with the three, depending on the situation.

“You’ve got a quick, physical, strong guy (Bernard), a guy that changes and affects shots (Morris) and you’ve got a guy that runs the court and has good hands (McDonald),” Greenberg said.

“Hopefully you can find the right mix depending on if they’re in man or in zone and the type of matchup you have, that you’ll get quality play out of the post.”

Greenberg said in order to get all three centers some minutes, he will focus on the opponents’ personnel – rather than a set rotation – when substituting.

“If you try to just get them minutes to get them minutes, I think you’re making a mistake,” he said. “You look at the way the game’s going and what you need.”

Bulls and Blue Demons square off

The Bulls will look to remain perfect in the C-USA standings when they travel to face DePaul Saturday at 2 p.m. The Blue Demons (7-6, 0-2 in C-USA) and Bulls have two common opponents this season – Fordham and Syracuse. The Bulls beat the Rams 104-84 while DePaul won its opener against Fordham 70-61. Syracuse beat USF 80-68 and the Orangemen defeated the Blue Demons 74-60.

After not starting the previous two games because of disciplinary reasons, Greenberg said senior Altron Jackson should be in for the opening tip-off against DePaul. Kelvin Brown, who has been on indefinite suspension, is expected to travel with the team, but his status for the game is undetermined.