Stan Heath makes his coaching debut tonight as the USF Bulls host St. Leo

Guard Solomon Bozeman is expected to be a key contributor off the bench and is one of eight returning players. ORACLE FILE PHOTO

After two dismal seasons since they entered the Big East in 2005, the men’s basketball team begins a new era tonight against St. Leo in the lone exhibition of the year for USF.

Bulls fans will get their first look at coach Stan Heath and the new style of play he is trying to bring to the team.

“We’re going to play an up-tempo game and try to spread the floor,” Heath said. “We’re trying to get on the radar screen – move up a notch – to get national recognition.”

Since joining what is arguably the best basketball conference in the nation, the Bulls have struggled to make their presence felt.

In the past two years, USF is 4-28 in conference play and the only team that has failed to qualify for the 12-team Big East Tournament since 2005.

During his time as an assistant at Michigan State and a head coach at Kent State and Arkansas, Heath earned a reputation as an excellent recruiter.

For his initial Bulls squad, he has brought in Orane Chin, Mobolaji Ajayi, Dominique Jones and Mohamed Esseghir to complement eight returning players from last season.

Even with Kentrell Gransberry, the third leading rebounder in the nation last season (11.4), the optimism surrounding the team hasn’t spread outside of Florida.

In the preseason coaches’ poll, USF was chosen to finish last in the conference.

“Somebody had to be picked there – I don’t necessarily see us in that light at all. I’ve never been a part of a team or program that’s finished at the very bottom,” Heath said. “I know my players don’t accept it. We’re not accepting what people say at all. It’s an edge, a chip on our shoulder to prove that we’re a better basketball team than maybe what people are picking us to be.”

Faced with low expectations, Heath hopes to take the country by surprise, much as he did when he took Kent State to the Elite Eight during his first year in 2001-02.

The team is using projection as motivation for the upcoming season.

“Being picked last in the league is a chip on our shoulder. We want to prove some people wrong,” point guard Chris Howard said. “At the same time, we just need to come out and play hard every night.”

The program’s turnaround didn’t happen immediately after Heath’s arrival. During the first few practices the Bulls looked similar to the team that struggled to a 12-18 record and lost its last seven games.

“The first few days, I didn’t know what to think. We were throwing the ball around the gym and we didn’t have a good rhythm or good chemistry out there,” Heath said. “But we’ve really picked it up. We’ve made a lot of progress and I see us executing better and getting more comfortable with the system.”

In the six months since the coach’s arrival, the team has noticed a big difference in practice. The faster, more intense style of play is something the players were hoping to establish last year.

“Obviously, when a new coach comes in you’re going to have to get to know all the new coaches and the new offense,” Gransberry said. “I know the guys are getting tired of beating up on each other, so playing against someone (else) is going to be really fun.”

Their first opportunity comes tonight when they host the Lions tonight at 7.

One of Heath’s primary goals for his initial season is to return the loud atmosphere the Sun Dome had when the Bulls were making NCAA Tournament appearances during the early 1990s.

“To get in front of our fans and the students and (let) them see what we’re doing is great,” Heath said. “It should be an exciting day for us.”