Pristine Bulls overcome sloppy play

As per coaches’ orders, they were clean-shaven and their shirts were tucked neatly into their shorts, but the USF men’s basketball team was sloppy as they struggled to put away Florida Atlantic 79-66 on Friday. Genuine improvements, however, were easily visible in USF’s first game, especially in senior center Gerrick Morris, who racked up 13 points.

“I have never seen a bad win, but yet it was also an ugly game,” USF coach Robert McCullum said.

A total of 23 turnovers dotted USF’s performance, allowing the Owls to score 24 points off giveaways. After amassing a 14-point lead early in the second half, the Bulls nearly gave it away as 11 turnovers allowed FAU to go on a 17-4 run to pull within one point with 11 minutes to play in the game.

“A lack of toughness, decision making and turnovers were the difference,” McCullum said. “I can’t say that I never have, but very, very few times have I ever been in a game where a team turned the ball over as much as we did tonight.”

With five minutes remaining in the second half, the Owls again pulled up close to the Bulls, this time within two, but USF went on a 15-4 run of their own to put away FAU. Six defensive rebounds allowed the Bulls to pull away and deny the Owls a road victory.

“Rebounding was just awesome, we did a great job on the boards,” McCullum said.

Helping his team out-rebound the Owls 52-31 was Morris, USF’s quiet giant. At 6- feet-2 and 220 pounds, Morris can be an imposing force in the paint, but his silent personality in past seasons has been reflected on the court. McCullum definitely wanted that to change.

“He wanted me to be very aggressive this year, very physical,” Morris said. “He wanted me come out and try to rebound every ball and run the floor hard. He just wants to play hard the whole time I am out there and I try to do that.”

Morris’ attempt succeeded Friday when he led his team in rebounds with a career high 13 and was second in points, his 13 another career-high. Senior Jimmy Baxter was the Bulls’ leading scorer with 20 points. Morris, who is best known for his blocking abilities, now stands alone as the No. 2 all-time blocker at USF after Friday’s game, with 159. He had four against the Owls.

“He’s a beast. If you have a guy back there that you know is going to beat everything that comes to the rim, you feel secure,” Baxter said. “I mean, he had 13 rebounds. He’s a beast tonight, that’s all I can say about that. I am proud of him.”

McCullum has emphasized Morris’ role on his team and wants the big man to be a senior leader. During preseason, players also commented on Morris’ newfound voice, albeit still a quiet one. McCullum said that Morris’ standout performance on Friday would not be the last.

“He is very capable of giving us these types of numbers, and I really believe that,” McCullum said. “Be rest assured, this will not be his last double-double, I am convinced of that.”

Adhering to McCullum’s new disciplinary ethos, the clean-shaven USF players kept their shirts tucked in the entire game with some friendly reminders from McCullum.

“I think habits are so important. The word I like to use is revitalization, and I think that’s what we are going through now,” McCullum said. “Those things (shirts tucked in) define what our program is like.”

Appearance and self-projection have been the keystones of McCullum’s philosophy since arriving in Tampa, especially since USF has earned a reputation among coaches around the league. McCullum remembered an incident during last season’s Nebraska game when graduate Reggie Kohn put down the game-winning three-point basket and only one player on the Bulls’ bench was on his feet cheering.

“Late in July, during the evaluation period, I even had a couple of coaches comment,” McCullum said. “Dan Dokich, who I have had a good relationship with at Bowling Green, mentioned to me that he used that tape. He showed that to his players and said, ‘This is how we don’t want to look.'”

McCullum is very serious about rules and his players adhering to them. Junior Brandon Brigman did not attend some of his classes, and McCullum suspended him from the game.

“As a department, we have a class attendance policy, and I told our guys when I first came, if you break it, you are not going to play,” McCullum said. “He didn’t take care of that, so I called Phyllis LaBaw and told Phyllis a long time ago that I don’t care what the circumstances are, the first game he is not going to play.”