Poland ready for takeoff

Whether he’s soaring through the lane for a thunderous dunk, appearing out of nowhere for a demoralizing block or bolting into the passing lane for an unexpected steal, sophomore guard Jawanza Poland has established himself as USF’s most exciting basketball player this season.

Therefore, it may surprise Bulls’ fans to hear that the man responsible for such electrifying feats of athleticism is also the quietest player on the team.

Standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing 200 pounds, Poland is soft spoken and carries himself with an even-keeled demeanor. Though the Bulls have struggled this season, the sophomore transfer has showed little emotion during games. This reflects his character off the court, coach Stan Heath said.

“He’s quiet,” Heath said. “He knows he’s got some abilities and he’s trying to figure out how to use them, but he’s a little reserved.”

Poland grew up in Wichita, Kan., and played high school ball at Wichita East High School. In addition to basketball, he played football for two seasons and competed as both a high jumper and a long jumper, proving that he is no stranger to getting airborne.

“I like making athletic plays, it’s been a part of my game going back to high school and middle school,” Poland said. “I like dunking. I guess you could say it’s one of my best plays.”

His dunking abilities even earned him the nickname “Air Wanza,” which he immortalized with a tattoo. While growing up, his neighbors across the street gave him the name as they watched him throw down on a lowered rim in front of his house, he said.

“Eventually, the goal got higher,” Poland said.

After playing one year at Cowley College, outside of his hometown, Poland was rated the No. 3 junior college shooting guard/small forward in the country in 2009. He redshirted the next year and attended Hutchinson Community College as he prepared to make the jump to Division I.

“Signing to a (Division) I school has always been one of my dreams,” he said. “I’ve known since I was a little kid that I wanted to play college basketball somewhere, and I ended up in the most competitive conference in the nation.”

That is how Poland wound up at USF, a school where he said he can see himself playing for multiple years and eventually earning a diploma. As a Bull, he not only has a chance to test his skills against the best in the country, but also has a national stage to showcase his abilities above the rim. Poland’s highlight dunks this season have already earned him two appearances on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays.”

Because of Poland’s tremendous talent, during the recruiting process, Heath said he pinpointed Poland as a player with great potential.

“I saw a guy oozing ability that can get a lot better,” Heath said.

In a game at Rutgers on Jan. 20, Poland missed a wide-open tomahawk dunk that Heath said he may have put too much “emphasis” on. Yet, that didn’t stop Air Wanza from attempting the same dunk a week later against DePaul – this time achieving perfection with a higher degree of difficulty. The rim-rattling play sent the Sun Dome crowd into a frenzy and gave the Bulls the vigor they needed to finish off the Blue Demons.

As Poland said, sometimes scoring is about more than just putting points on the board.

“I like getting people excited,” he said. “It gets the crowd into the game, and it gets my team into the game, and then we start getting easy buckets.”

Poland and the Bulls (8-14, 2-7) will attempt to pick up their third win of the Big East season tonight at 7 in Providence (13-9, 2-7). USF beat the Friars 79-72 in the Sun Dome on Jan. 16. Poland scored 13 points during the previous meeting, including an 8-of-8 performance from the free-throw line and four made free throws inside the final 40 seconds to ice the game.