Non-conference play is over, but it's tough to get a read on exactly what our results mean for play in The American. The Bulls are 9-4, with a similar profile to what they had each of the last two seasons. One of those seasons ended in spectacular success, the other with massive failure. Which way will this season go?
This season's non-conference schedule has had both good, bad, and ugly aspects to it, so let's divide them that way:
GOOD: The new talent has lived up to the hype, and then some. Freshmen Chris Perry and John Egbunu have turned last year's weakness, inside play, into a strength. Perry's making a case for AAC Freshman of the Year. Jr. has been a revelation, providing assists and baskets as needed. Shemiye McLendon, little regarded coming into the season, has contributed. The roster has a level of talent and depth rarely seen at USF. All while redshirting three freshmen!
BAD: But now we have a new problem. Outside shooting. USF manages only 3.6 three-point baskets per game, among the worst in the NCAA. This gives opponents a way to negate our strength, by throwing 2-3 zones at us. This was particularly evident in the Detroit game, where the Titans filled the paint with bodies and swarmed our big men. Nobody on the Bulls roster was able to penetrate, or hit from outside. In part because:
UGLY: Anthony Collins' knee problems continue to linger. Anthony Collins' offseason knee surgery to remove an inflammed bursa sac was supposed to keep him out of action for a week or so. But he continues to have pain, and now has tendonitis as well. Allen has been fantastic filling in for Collins at the point, but having a healthy Collins there and Allen at the two would raise the roster to another level. (UPDATE: Collins will not play tonight against Memphis.)
I want to play what-if for a moment: what if Blake Nash and Shaun Noriega had stayed at USF? Nash could have given Collins some rest last year, and let Allen play more at the two this year. Noriega's only real skill is designated three point shooter, but we could really use a guy like that. His presence could have won us the Detroit game, at the very least.
Staying probably would have been better for these players too, as neither has played a minute since leaving USF. Nash never played for Texas Tech, leaving after his redshirt/transfer year, and is now headed for NAIA Oklahoma Baptist. Noriega has yet to see action for Texas-Pan American -- and may never -- due to a lingering foot injury.
GOOD: The team has shown a knack for pulling out victories. It started against George Mason, an incredible come-from-behind win in which the Bulls rallied from 17 points down, held GMU to one basket over eleven minutes, and won on a Corey Allen last-second shot. Close games against Alabama, FGCU, Florida A&M, and Bradley all went the Bulls' way, thanks to the team making their free throws, being tight defensively, and different players making plays in key moments. If you squint, you can kind of see the personality of the mighty 2011-12 team starting to form again.
Don't laugh; that team's non-conference resume was about the same as this one's. They also had an averted last-second defeat (Vermont), two-game tournament disaster (Old Dominion/Penn State), bad SEC loss (Auburn), and massacre at the hands of a Big XII power (Kansas).
BAD: But not all the time. Lately the team has had a different flaw every game. Against Santa Clara, it was free throw shooting (an abysmal 4-16 in the second half); against Mississippi State, turnovers (18) leading to easy baskets; against Detroit, poor shooting (less than 30% in the second half).
UGLY: Against teams they should be beating handily. USF's RPI breakdown lists only Oklahoma State as a Top 100 team. Mississippi State, Santa Clara, and Detroit will all go down as "bad losses" if the team gets into bubble consideration. An NCAA-caliber team should be dispatching the likes of Florida A&M and Bradley much more easily. For example, UConn beat Detroit 101-55.
So what happens now? The season could go one of three ways:
GOOD: USF repeats the 2011-12 conference season. The Bulls take no more bad losses, play the stronger teams close, and pull one big upset at just the right moment. (Say, UConn at home on February 26.) Let's call it 12-6, which would put USF at 21-10 entering the conference tournament. That's bubble city, but the AAC tourney would present opportunities to win their way into the field. At worst, we're headed to the NIT, which would be a nice bounce-back season, and a good thing for such a young roster.
BAD: USF is no better or worse than most of the other teams in the league. Houston, SMU, UCF, Rutgers, and Temple all have similar won-lost profiles to USF right now. If the Bulls split games against those teams, and pull one upset, that adds up to 6-12, 15-16 overall. The Bulls would have a fighting chance at a winning season, and maybe a CBI invitation. Which we shouldn't sneeze at, by the way.
UGLY: Injuries, attrition, and an insurmountable flaw. Collins never gets healthy. Other player(s) get hurt, and nobody steps up in their absence. The team's outside shooting woes become an easily exploitable defect, as their lack of inside presence was last season. 2013-14 goes down as yet another 10-win season for USF basketball. Which shouldn't be, because this team has more talent than that.