I went to Las Vegas with the team this year for the Las Vegas Classic, and at the time I didn't realize I was witnessing where the season would ultimately turn for the worse and never recover. But if you had to point to one place where it all began to go wrong for the Bulls, it was against a scrappy Mississippi State and what should have been an overmatched Santa Clara at The Orleans Arena on Dec. 22nd & 23rd.
USF simply couldn't match the intensity of the Bulldogs in the first game. They had an outstanding matchup inside, and it seemed if they threw it down on the block every trip undersized MSU would be hosed. But they couldn't ever take advantage and turned it over 18 times on just 64 possessions. A phantom foul on Corey Allen at the end of the game sealed their fate, and a more talented Bulls team dropped a game they should have won.
It was also the first game without Anthony Collins, as he'd never play again that season after 33 minutes vs. FAMU in the previous contest. Losing AC didn't necessarily spell the end of the season, as he was oft-capably replaced by Corey Allen Jr. and others, but it did mean USF would lose the guy through which they planned to run much of the offense. And no one else stepped up to be consistently capable to win in his absence.
The following day a few of our players skipped their pre game meal and were spotted in In-N-Out Burger just a few hours before the tip-off with Santa Clara. Yes everyone loves In-N-Out, but it's probably not the best thing to be downing before playing a D-1 basketball game. The Bulls went on to lose 66-65 to a Broncos team that can't do anything but shoot 3's. The final play was drawn up for Victor Rudd to drive to the rim going left, but Rudd had been playing with an injured left ring finger that was clearly bothering him for both games. He had ice on it as we interviewed him the night before. So why is your final play with your best scorer going left there? Like a lot of things this year, it didn't always make sense.
After that trip I knew my preseason prediction of this being an NCAA team was in serious jeopardy. Some of the guys just didn't seem to have enough heart and hustle, and the losses didn't seem to bother them too much. It certainly wasn't everyone, but a few guys made it seem like it was no big deal.
There's some really good kids on this USF team. They're smart, interesting, funny, and I enjoy talking to them. But there's a lot that went wrong this year, and there were clearly chemistry issues though what the cause of those was I'm not exactly sure. I think their conditioning left a lot to be desired, and I'd argue some of the late-game collapses were due to not being in good enough shape. Way too many hands bent over on shorts too early in games or after just a few trips up and down the floor.
But this team has talent, and some new leadership (both on the sidelines and in uniform) could get this thing turned around in a hurry. It's all dependent on who USF hires and how the roster shakes out after the season, but there's some pieces here. And with some shooters like Troy Holston on the way, it might not take long to see a winner back in the Sun Dome.
Being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in America was the Bulls biggest problem this year. But many of their other issues began to surface in Vegas in December.