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Men’s basketball season preview

Forward Alexis Yetna missed all of last season with an ACL injury. He’s expected to be a key player for USF and was named to the AAC Preseason All-Conference Second Team. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

After a long and stressful offseason littered with uncertainty and doubt, USF men’s basketball is returning to the court as their first game quickly approaches.

There are still plenty of unknowns, but for now, USF plans to tip off its season against Florida College on Wednesday.

Here are some storylines to follow as the season begins.

Players to watch this season

One of the big names to watch this season is forward Alexis Yetna, who had his 2019-20 season end before it began, as he suffered an ACL injury that sidelined him for the entire year. 

In the season prior, Yetna led the AAC with 9.6 rebounds per game. He also added 12.3 points per game to go along with his proficient rebounding. 

The AAC coaches poll selected Yetna as a member of the Preseason All-Conference Second Team for this season. Such an honor shows that coaches around the conference expect him to pick up right where he left off.

Somewhat of a wild card to watch this season is a newcomer to the team, freshman Caleb Murphy.

Murphy is a four-star guard from Georgia, where he was ranked as the eighth-best recruit in the state by 247Sports. When asked about the growth he’s seen from Murphy, coach Brian Gregory gave his praise to the freshman in a mid-October press conference.

“He’s got a chance to be a special player,” Gregory said. “The best thing for Caleb Murphy is he’s surrounded on the perimeter with veteran players, so although we need him to make an impact for us, it’s not like he’s doing that on his own.

“He can play all three perimeter positions, which he will.”

On top of Yetna and Murphy, redshirt junior forward Prince Oduro, a transfer from Mississippi State, could have a big role with the team in terms of scoring the basketball.

Gregory discussed Oduro’s innate ability of putting the ball in the bucket.

“I do like [that] Prince has a knack for putting the ball in the basket in a variety of ways,” Gregory said. “The best part about him and Russel [Tchewa] right now is they’re big, strong, and play hard and finish around the basket.”

Possible AAC contenders

The AAC released its preseason coaches poll in late October, and USF was ranked fifth out of 11 programs.

The Bulls are sandwiched in between the Cincinnati Bearcats at fourth and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at sixth.

After finishing this past year 14-17, good for ninth in the conference, seeing USF ranked as high as No. 5 is something that’s bound to get Bulls fans excited.

The AAC consistently produces quality teams that appear poised to make waves in the college basketball landscape and this year is no different.

The four teams ranked above USF in the coaches poll are Houston, Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati.

Houston was selected to win the conference, receiving nine first-place votes, followed by Memphis which received the final two.

The first AP Poll, which came out Nov. 9, has the Cougars ranked 17th in the country, clearly a formidable foe that the Bulls will have to deal with.

If the Bulls want a chance at the conference title, they’ll likely have to go through one or more of those top teams.

Fourth time around for Gregory

Gregory is set to start his fourth season as the Bulls head coach, and through his first three seasons as coach, the Bulls are 48-53. That record includes a rocky 10-22 start in his first season.

His best season at the helm came in his second year when USF went 24-14 and eventually became College Basketball Invitational (CBI) champions.

After a somewhat disappointing 14-17 record last year, Gregory and his squad look to bounce back and return to being above the .500 mark.

Season expectations

This season is sure to bring challenges that no other basketball season has ever brought before due to the novel coronavirus.

Every team is going to be operating under the same circumstances, but USF has the benefit of having a team full of veterans.

Out of the 13 players currently on the roster, nine are returning from last season.

That type of continuity may prove to be helpful as this season will require a lot of mental and physical fortitude.

“You got to go back to your core goals, your No. 1 goal,” Gregory said. “Our No. 1 goal is to be better today than we were yesterday, no outside situation can change that.”

With the veteran presence USF has accompanied by the return of Yetna and the arrival of newcomers Murphy, Oduro and Tchewa there is no reason why the Bulls can’t make a run.