Every season has a conclusion, whether it's good or bad. When we get there, it's time to look back on what happened. This is...
Today, we start reviewing the men's basketball season.
Back in October, most Bulls fans would have been happy if you told them the men's basketball team would hover around .500 and hopefully improve on last season's 4-14 conference record. Based on those reasonable standards, this year's team was a rousing success. They won 20 games for the first time since 1990. They broke even in conference play and beat two nationally-ranked teams in a row. They earned their first postseason appearance since 2002. And along the way, one player did more to awaken the alleged "sleeping giant" that is USF basketball than any of the last three coaches who vowed to do it.
The real story of the 2009-10 season began when Gus Gilchrist suffered a badly sprained ankle against Hampton in December. Up until that point in the season, Stan Heath had been using close to a conventional lineup, with Gilchrist at center, Jarrid Famous and Mike Mercer at forward, and Dominique Jones and Chris Howard at guard. For awhile, Heath continued to try and play a conventional setup, sliding Toarlyn Fitzpatrick into the starting lineup. But once BIG EAST play started, things weren't working out. To make matters worse, Justin Leemow and Jordan Dumars left the team, leaving the Bulls extremely short on players who could hang in the toughest conference in the country. USF piled up four quick losses (although to be fair, it was against four NCAA tournament teams), and it looked like another season was going down the tubes.
Almost out of necessity, Heath started going small, both in size and in rotation. Gone were the days of Ryan Kardok getting 25 minutes. Freshmen Mike Burwell and Shaun Noriega also earned near-permanent spots on the bench. Heath would play Jones, Howard, Mercer, and sometimes transfer Anthony Crater all at once, and rotate between Famous and Fitzpatrick as centers. This six-man rotation started paying dividends right away as the Bulls beat Rutgers and hung tight at Cincinnati.
Then came a season-saving and possibly program-changing win. Down by 13 at Providence with two minutes to go, and down by nine with 45 seconds left, the Bulls staged maybe their most unlikely comeback ever, tying the game on a Fitzpatrick three-pointer with less than a second to go.
The Bulls won 109-105 in overtime, and a star was born as Jones threw in a school-record 46 points. When USF followed it up with another overtime win against Seton Hall, the Bulls had their first back-to-back BIG EAST wins ever. But no one was ready for the next two wins.
On January 31, Dominique Jones turned in the best performance of his career and arguably the best single-game performance ever by a USF player. Against 17th-ranked Pittsburgh, a team well-known for their defensive prowess, he scored 37 points (more than half of his team's total) and collected eight rebounds in a 70-61 upset win. Then the Bulls topped even that accomplishment by going up to Washington and beating 7th-ranked Georgetown 72-64, overcoming a 13-point deficit. In a 14-minute stretch spanning the first and second halves, the Bulls went on a 30-9 run that still feels like an out-of-body experience two months later. That was South Florida out there, stomping some Hoya ass? Really? Are you sure? That's not a misprint? This couldn't be happening.
Oh, but it was happening, and it was fucking amazing.
Who was in the middle of it all? None other than Dominique Jones. In his first post for the blog, Toro Grande's praise for DoJo could not be contained:
"I’ve had a basketball crush on him since his freshman year, because it’s been clear his hoops IQ is Mensa standard. He sees the game the way I’ve always wanted every player with obscene talent like his to see it. He also has the physical talent to execute everything that mind can visualize. I’ve often called him a poor man’s Dwayne Wade. That’s not fair. He’s a middle class version with a matched 401k and stock options. Before the last two weeks I wondered about his size, quickness, and ability to compete at the next level. But I think I let my wall color what my eyes did see. I couldn’t believe that a player this good would actually play for my alma mater. 'If he really was that good, he wouldn’t be at USF.'
No more. He really is that good, and he really is at USF."
Unfortunately, there was one thing that Jones, and the entire team for that matter, couldn't do: shoot outside shots. The Bulls' surge had been powered by fast breaks, dribble penetration, and free throw shooting. So when Notre Dame beat them in the next game by playing a zone and packing the lane, USF's kryptonite had been found. Soon after, everyone was doing it. Even Villanova, a team that plays man defense almost exclusively, played some zone against the Bulls. While the momentum slowed considerably and their NCAA tournament chances slowly faded away, the team still had enough in them to beat Cincinnati, Providence again (with another wild finish), DePaul, and Connecticut down the stretch to finish conference play at 9-9. Gilchrist returned from his ankle injury against Marquette, and even though he clearly was not 100% (and stayed that way for the rest of the season), he did help open up the driving lanes a little bit for the guards.
After several weeks of fretting about losses to Central Michigan and St. John's, it turned out those losses didn't cost USF a trip to the NCAAs. They received a #3 seed into the NIT and lost a freakish first-round game to N.C. State, where some white guy with a tattoo scored a career-high in points, Jones missed seven free throws, and the winning basket came when everyone ran into the backcourt to chase an inbounds pass, leaving several Wolfpack players open under the rim. This was an especially tough way to lose because the Bulls had done well closing out games all year long, and they hadn't made dumb mistakes like that at all.
We're going to do a Part 2 later this week, looking forward to 2010-11. Also, Ken is planning to revisit his preseason rankings of The Most Important Player For USF Basketball, or as it was better known the world over, TMIPFUSFB. (The rankings were on his old blog, which has unfortunately been stricken from the Internet record, but he remembered where everyone was.)