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New faces look to propel Bulls into AAC contention

Coach Brian Gregory is entering his fifth year at the helm of the USF men’s basketball team. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

With 10 new faces and just four returning players, the 2021 offseason was one of wholesale changes for coach Brian Gregory and the USF men’s basketball team.

So many moving parts makes it impossible to truly understand where this team will be at season’s end, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Bulls fare.

Here are a few storylines about the upcoming hoops season.

Players to watch this season

Of the few familiar names from last season’s squad, the one to watch this year is sophomore guard Caleb Murphy.

As a true freshman, Murphy appeared in 21 games, starting 18. He averaged 8.3 points per game and scored a career-high 20 at Memphis. Murphy was named AAC Freshman of the Week twice and was included in the AAC All-Freshman Team.

In terms of newcomers, look out for fifth-year senior guard Javon Greene. The Georgia native scored 11.5 points per game and shot 37% from beyond the arc as a senior, finishing his career at George Mason as the program’s third all-time leader in steals.

Also likely to compete for a starting role is sophomore forward Jalyn McCreary. The South Carolina transfer played a limited role off the bench in Columbia but scored in double figures in his final three games, including a career-high 15 against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament. He led the Bulls with 17 points in their 92-42 exhibition win over Voorhees College on Nov. 1.

Conference outlook

The Bulls were tabbed to finish near the bottom of the AAC in the preseason coaches’ poll, along with teams like Temple, Tulane and East Carolina. Despite the team’s 9-13 record last season, the low ranking is likely a result of such drastic roster turnover. 

The Bulls could serve as the conference’s wild-card team this year under Gregory. A roster with 10 new players will likely make the Bulls one of the AAC’s most unpredictable teams.

As for the conference favorites, it should come as no surprise that Houston, fresh off a conference championship and berth in the Final Four, is being touted to retain their top spot. The Cougars are ranked No. 15 in the AP’s preseason poll.

Predicted to finish as conference runnerups is Memphis, the defending NIT champions who will add the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to the roster. The Tigers are also ranked three spots higher than Houston by the AP at No. 12.

If the Bulls are to make any noise in the conference title picture or make a deep run in the conference tournament, the matchups against these two foes will serve as a measuring stick.

Fresh faces up and down the roster

With the transfer portal having such a profound effect on the team in terms of both incomings and outgoings, Bulls fans will have plenty of names, faces and stories to familiarize themselves with in the coming weeks.

Speaking after the team’s exhibition Nov. 1, Gregory said he is planning to rely on the depth of new players with collegiate experience looking to prove themselves at a new program.

“We’re a young team,” he said. “But [every one of the new players] has played college basketball except for [freshman guard] Trey Moss.” 

The Bulls have transfers from programs around the country like New Mexico, the former home of freshman forward Bayron Matos, and Triton College, a community college in Illinois where freshman forward DJ Patrick was a standout scorer.

Notable opponents

There are plenty of games for fans to look forward to before conference play starts on New Years’ Day against East Carolina. 

The Bulls’ first real test of the season will be hosting No. 22 Auburn on Nov. 19 at Amalie Arena. The Tigers are just a couple years removed from a Final Four appearance of their own.

Another date to mark on the calendar is a neutral-site clash against Florida on Dec. 18 in Sunrise. It will be the program’s first meeting with the Gators since 2002. 

The Bulls will play Houston twice in a two-week span in January and host Memphis in the penultimate game of the regular season March 3.

Season expectations

It’s hard to get a grasp on what to expect from this Bulls team. Gregory will certainly want the incumbent players to improve from the progress made last season, but this team will only go as far as their depth will take them.

By the time the Bulls make the 4,500-mile trip to Honolulu for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic the week of Christmas, Gregory should have an established rotation and roles for each player.

A successful season will depend on the integration of the 10 new players. In a best-case scenario, fans can expect a push for a top-5 conference finish and a deep AAC tournament run.