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Bulls set to begin AAC tournament against Temple

Senior guard David Collins (above) is likely one of the upperclassmen coach Brian Gregory said he wants to rely on in the AAC tournament. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

It’s been a rocky restart for the USF men’s basketball team since returning from its 32-day hiatus caused by COVID-19-protocols, but the upcoming AAC tournament offers the Bulls an opportunity to go on a run.

The Bulls (8-12, 4-10 AAC) are set to begin the tournament with a first-round matchup Thursday against Temple (5-10, 4-10 AAC). They split back-to-back games against the Owls on Feb. 21 and Feb. 24.

Bulls coach Brian Gregory said his team is excited for the trip to Texas and getting the tournament started.

“I think our guys are fired up about going to go to Dallas [for the tournament],” Gregory said Monday morning. “And you know as well as I do, seasons can turn around quickly with really good performances in conference tournaments.”

If the Bulls are going to get back on track and turn around their season, it’s likely going to take an uptick in their shooting numbers.

Since coming back from the pause, USF has seen its field goal and three-point percentages take a dip.

“Overall after the pause, we went from 36% from the three, to under 30%, 29% from the three,” Gregory said. “Offensive field goal [percentage was] right at 41%, to now at 36%.

“Not only have our defensive numbers not been as good, our shooting percentages [are down]. The only thing we’re doing better now is we’re making more free throws and shooting better from the free-throw line.”

Despite whatever issues USF has had up to this point, every team is in the same situation in the tournament — single-game elimination. Gregory will look to lean on his upperclassmen to bring some momentum.

“In those situations you have to do a really good job of getting those upperclassmen to buy in, because they’ve been through it, they know it,” he said. “If you look at the teams that are surging and playing well right now, a lot of them are riding their upperclassmen.”

Relying on his veterans could serve Gregory well, but he may be without the services of two key starters. Redshirt junior forward Alexis Yetna and freshman guard Caleb Murphy are both questionable for the game due to injuries, according to Gregory.

“I think [Yetna and Murphy are] right now both questionable if they’ll be able to play on Thursday. Both are recovering well … really the next 72 hours is going to be critical,” he said. “We’re hoping to get them in at least one practice prior to [the game], if not two. They’re going to still be limited right now.”

Another issue for USF, aside from the injuries, has been the overall lack of practice the players have seen since the layoff and trying to bring their conditioning back up to par. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced was not just the 32-day layoff. When we play on Thursday it’ll be 57 days since we [first] hit the pause,” he said. “In that time we’ve only had 18 practices, and in those 18 practices only 14 of them had 10 scholarship players available for practice.

“We’re a program that values what you do daily in our daily practices, and our preparation and our development within the season, and some of that stuff has really been put into conflict with our ability to even be on the court.”

Gregory said while a lack of practice is a real issue, it cannot be an excuse moving forward. 

“All [of] those are legitimate, rational explanations, but you still have to go out there now and dig down, whatever pieces are left and whatever pieces are available, those have to be good enough,” he said.

The Bulls and Owls will tip off the AAC tournament Thursday at noon. The game will be televised on ESPNU and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.