A spark off the bench

When sophomore guard Justin Leemow takes the floor, there’s extra anticipation among the men’s basketball team because of what he brings to the table: lots of effort.

“The guys have a little saying when Justin gets in. It’s ‘turn the heat up, it’s 500 degrees,'” said USF coach Stan Heath. “They get it going.”

That’s because they know how valuable he can be.

“He’s a scrappy defender,” said sophomore forward Augustus Gilchrist, who played AAU ball with Leemow in high school. “He can come in and hit some shots and also play some backup point guard, which is tremendous for us.”

Leemow, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., was a late addition to USF’s 2008-09 recruiting class, signing a grant-in-aid after three USF signees failed to qualify because of low grades. He played a year of prep school basketball in North Carolina after high school.

When the signees fell through, Heath had to compensate for depth, and through Gilchrist he found Leemow, who was interested in smaller schools but had no offer from a major program.

Then USF came knocking.

“It was something big,” Leemow said of getting a chance to play in the Big East. “At the end of the day, players in the Big East were players I played against from my hometown.”

He was an important player on his prep school team, but he said when he went to a program in the Big East, he had to make adjustments to his game.

“A lot faster pace and stronger guys,” Leemow said. “Coaches are different because I come from a program where I was the main factor. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. It’s more structured (here).”

Because of his effort – one of the first guys to every loose ball – he’s fit into an off-the-bench role. He doesn’t mind the attention, though, when he enters the court to the “turn up the heat” chant.

“(My teammates) know I can bring it (on defense),” Leemow said. “It’s just something they do so we can get the defensive intensity up.”

Heath said Leemow sometimes gets so pumped up that he has to temper his young guard a bit on offense.

“I tell him all the time: ‘Justin, you’re not the No. 1 option; you’re not the No. 2 option. Let’s make sure we go in the right pecking order when your shots go up,'” Heath said jokingly.

But Leemow has shown he is capable of offense, coming on strong at times last season with his three-point shot.

In a win against Virginia on Nov. 16, Leemow came off the bench and went 3-for-3 from three-point range. Sitting at the podium during the postgame press conference, he recalled how nervous he would get during big games last season.

“My freshman year, playing with guys like (junior guard Dominique) Jones, Augustus … coming into the games I was a lot more nervous because they expected a lot of things from me,” he said.

“Coming into my sophomore year, I’m a lot more confident because I have a year under my belt. I know what to expect with the college tempo, how fast-paced it is. Last year, I was in a hurry.”

Before the Cincinnati game last season on March 3, he hadn’t scored a point in a span of eight games, missing 19 straight three-point shots and 24 straight field goals. However, he hit two key three-pointers in the second half of the game and USF won 70-59.

“I remember that game (last year),” Heath said. “That was a big game for him. He was ‘0-for-America and finally knocked down a couple of shots at some key times and really turned the game for us.”

Leemow said he was a bit discouraged, but wasn’t going to let that affect his shot selection.

“It’s tough when you’re not making shots,” Leemow said. “Everybody’s kind of patting you on the back. You just have to keep shooting until you make it.”

Leemow kept his promise. he kept shooting – including the Cincinnati game, he started making a few, hitting 6 of his next 13 three-point shots after the slump. Heading into this year, he had made 11 of 22 three-pointers at one point.

Leemow has carried that momentum into his backup point guard role this year, helping the Bulls, who face Hampton at 7 tonight in the Sun Dome, to a 6-1 record, it’s best start since the 2001-02 season. He’s second on the team with nine steals and has seven three-pointers this season.

“Last year, as a freshman, we had (no) choice but to throw him into the fire,” Heath said. “He wasn’t exactly ready but did a good job. You can see now he’s playing with more confidence. He’s working extra and it’s paying off. He’s a guy that’s in the gym shooting extra. He understands better