Men’s basketball set for first exhibition

For the South Florida men’s basketball team, it’s finally time to hit the hardwood.

The Bulls will play the first of two exhibitions tonight against the West Florida Argonauts.

“We’re all real excited to finally get out there and play,” sophomore guard Dominique Jones said. “We feel like we’re ready to get this season started.”

The Bulls will hit the floor with a completely different lineup from the one that took the court a year ago.

USF has nine new players on its roster, including freshman forward Eladio Espinosa, who coach Stan Heath said is likely to start in the first game.

“I love basketball, so this means a lot to me,” Espinosa said. “I’ve had butterflies for like a week, just getting ready to play. I’m excited to go out there and play with my teammates.”

Espinosa has impressed his teammates during practices, senior guard Jesus Verdejo said.

“He’s a really good player, and he should help contribute right away,” he said.

The Bulls lost their first three games last season, and Heath said it’s important for the team to win its exhibitions so it has momentum heading into the season.

“These games are huge for our confidence,” he said. “They’re also my best opportunity to see the new guys, who don’t have much experience, and see what they can do in a game situation.”

Jones said USF was hurt by a lack of leadership at the beginning of last season, with former center Kentrell Gransberry unable to play the first game of the year after playing in a tournament hosted by Tracy McGrady of the Houston Rockets.

“Last year we really didn’t have a leader, but I know this is my team now,” Jones said. “I know I’m a leader, (senior guard) Chris (Howard) is a leader and Jesus is a leader.”

Heath said he was happy with the way Jones has stepped into a leadership role on the team.

“The Dominique Jones you see this year will be totally different from the Jones you saw at the beginning of last year,” he said. “He has matured so much during the offseason, and you can see that in the way he interacts with his teammates on a daily basis.”

Verdejo said USF wants to win because an early loss could hurt the team’s confidence going into the season.

“We know it’s only an exhibition, but we want to go out there and win this game — for us and for our fans,” he said. “We know what we’re capable of, and we should go out there and get the win.”