Murphy at center of new-look Bulls roster

With a rash of transfers and an influx of new talent, coach Brian Gregory will likely lean more on freshman guard Caleb Murphy this season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Freshman point guard Caleb Murphy arrived at USF in 2020 as the highest-ranked recruit to ever commit to playing for the men’s basketball team.

Murphy, tabbed as the 12th-best combo guard of his class by 247Sports, averaged 8.3 points and 2.8 assists per game in his first year with the program. All this, despite a season marred with off-court drama out of his control and COVID-19-related issues that led to a monthlong hiatus midway into the season.

After a whopping 10 players entered the transfer portal at season’s end, Murphy is one of just four returning to the team from last season. The other three include junior guard Jamir Chaplin, junior center Russel Tchewa and senior guard Mark Calleja.

Given the extreme turnover and the nature of the point guard position, Murphy now finds himself as the focal point of the offense in an unpredictable season.

“It starts with Caleb,” coach Brian Gregory said at AAC Media Day on Oct. 13. “Who, prior to our pause, had been the freshman of the week [two] times in our league … He’s had an unbelievable spring [and] a great summer.”

Gregory and Murphy have steadily built their relationship since the young guard arrived on campus. Murphy said the fifth-year head coach cares about his players beyond what they can do for him on the basketball court.

“We’ve got a real good relationship,” Murphy said. “It’s way more than basketball with him. It’s not just when we’re in the building practicing and stuff, he cares on the court, [but] he cares off the court too.

“When I went home in May, he came to visit me when I was in Atlanta, little stuff like that.”

Murphy will likely find himself as a prominent player and ball handler on the floor for the Bulls. It’s also safe to predict he’s destined to step into some sort of leadership role that others, such as former USF players David Collins and Alexis Yetna, may have assumed last year.

The 6-foot-4-inch guard could have an easier time adjusting to a leadership role as he has some history with his new teammates. Many come from the Atlanta area, where Murphy now lives, and freshman forward Bayron Matos, who transferred to USF from New Mexico, played alongside Murphy in AAU with the Atlanta Celtics in 2019.

“For me, being a leader, really you’ve got to lead by example,” Murphy said. “If everybody sees you do it, then they’re going to do it. If they see you go hard, they’re going to go hard too.

“You’ve got to do it though. You can’t hold other people accountable if you’re not holding yourself accountable. It’s just [about] going hard [and] doing the little things.”

Spearheading a roster and pushing his teammates to improve is nothing new to Murphy. During his senior year in high school, his lone season playing under coach Geoffrey Pierce with the Grayson Rams, the Ohio native used his demeanor to get the team going.

“Caleb’s competitive, he’s so competitive,” Pierce said. “The energy was always good in practice because everything we do is based on competition. Sometimes the kids, or a couple players, they might not necessarily feel like being there, their energy is low, but with him being so competitive, the energy was always in practice and it was contagious.”

His leadership style of leading by example, which he attributes to his father’s teachings, is also a familiar tactic he’s used before. No matter what the situation was at Grayson, he always made sure to put forth 100% effort and set the standard for his teammates, according to Pierce.

“He’s always going hard,” Pierce said. “Whether it’s individual workouts, drills in practice, game situations … he’s always leading by example.

“It made it easy for him, even though he was only there one year, he became one of the leaders pretty quickly just because he goes so hard everyday, so it made it easy to demand that from his teammates as well.”

As the Bulls are set to tip off an unpredictable season Nov. 9 against Bethune-Cookman, Murphy only has one goal in mind.

“Just to win,” he said. “I think this year can be the best Bulls team that USF’s had.”