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Better, faster, stronger — Gregory’s core crew returns

Laquincy Rideau (3) and David Collins were the top scorers last season for USF. They are now working toward a new standard this season. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

As a college basketball team, it’s one thing for a few standout players to return the following season. 

After all, playmakers are typically experienced upperclassmen who are snapped up in the NBA Draft or simply graduate.

But USF men’s basketball faces an entirely different situation — all of its playmakers are back this season.

The Bulls practiced for the first time Tuesday in preparation for their season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Nov. 5. 

As USF gears up for its season, coach Brian Gregory is no longer tasked with laying the groundwork for his squad. 

Now it’s down to fine-tuning and gearing up for the new pressures the team faces after winning the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) championship last season.

“We have experience in terms of how we want to do things, how we want to practice,” Gregory said.

The Bulls have the advantage of keeping their top scoring guard pair from last season — junior David Collins and senior Laquincy Rideau. The two accounted for more than 38 percent of the Bulls’ offense last season.

Rideau and forward Antun Maricevic are the only seniors on the team. Gregory said they now have the responsibility of guiding the two new freshmen — guard Jamir Chaplin and forward B.J. Mack.

It happens that the freshmen play the same positions as the veterans, which should help the new players find their footing faster. Overall, the team has known each other for at least a year, meaning the freshmen walk into a tight-knit environment.

“It actually speeds up the process for the two freshmen,” Gregory said. “Because they have got everybody else around them that knows what’s going on and it’s easier for them to pick up stuff.”

Gregory has been impressed with the way Chaplin and Mack have adapted to the team so far. He was impressed with the way both players played during the Canadian tour in August, but said he wants to see physical improvements.

The freshmen aren’t the only players looking to improve, however. 

Assistant strength and conditioning coach Zach Houghton tweeted a series of pictures in August showing the progress of eight players’ physical improvements. In total, 13 players — including the freshmen — decreased their body-fat percentages from last year. For example, sophomore guard Xavier Castaneda went from more than 7 percent body fat to under 6 percent in the span of a year.

On top of physical improvements to the players, the team now seems to be heading in a defined direction. There is a big difference in where the team was last season compared with where it is this season, according to Gregory.

“Guys have gotten significantly better,” Gregory said. “Heading into this point last year, we weren’t exactly sure where we’d be … now we kind of have an idea.”

Part of the difference was last season’s CBI-winning campaign, which set a new standard for the team.

Now, heading into this season, USF is seen as a threat in the AAC and is even considered a possible contender to make it to the NCAA Tournament by analysts like Andy Katz.

The standards keep rising for the Bulls, and Gregory is continuing to push his team to meet them.

“We can’t lose sight of what helped build this program to where it’s at right now,” Gregory said. “There is no relief. There’s a tendency to take a deep breath, ‘OK, we made it.’

“No, the price tag just increases.”