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USF Men’s Basketball: Just Scratching the Surface of Their Potential

Even if the season ended poorly, year minus-1 was a rousing success.

Anthony Vito / The Daily Stampede

You have to have expectations to feel disappointment, right? And while the last two weeks of the USF men’s basketball season have left much to be desired, you have to admit it’s nice having these games matter for a change.

Coming up on the seventh anniversary of the 2012 team that won two games in the NCAA Tournament, USF men’s basketball is finally on the road back to prominence (or at least decency), which to many is a surprise. Especially with how much ahead of schedule this team is. The Bulls are 19-12 in year minus-1 for head coach Brian Gregory. At the start of the year, none of the players on the 2018-19 roster had been with the program for more than 16 months.

Overachievers. For sure.

USF did miss a couple of milestones, most notably the chance to be the first in school history to get to 20 regular season wins. The Bulls can still cap off the fifth 20-win season in school history with a win against UConn on Thursday to kick off the AAC tournament in Memphis.

Although they missed out on 20 regular-season wins, USF broke a couple of records with Sunday’s AAC finale against SMU. The Bulls broke the single-season school record in three-pointers made in a season, which was a little surprising considering USF sits tied for eighth in the AAC in three-point field goal percentage at 32.8 percent.

“And we’re not a good shooting team. I don’t know what was going on here before,” Gregory said on Sunday after finding out they broke the single-season record.

Regardless, this team has taken a number of steps. Redshirt freshman forward Alexis Yetna easily became one of the most dominant players in the AAC before his hamstring injury in February. His unanimous selection to the AAC All-Freshman team was the second consecutive year that the Bulls have had someone on that list.

Last year, the All-Freshman team spot went to David Collins. Although the sophomore from Youngstown, Ohio, has shot a pedestrian 31% from the field over the last six games (take the 5-for-8 Tulane game as an outlier), Collins has been good in getting to the free throw line and better in making those shots. He went 11-for-13 at the stripe in the road fixture against UConn, 8-for-13 against Tulane, and 9-for-11 on Sunday.

He’s scored 20 or more in ten games. He called game with a last-second three in Dallas to down SMU. Collins has been the building block for this team. Consistency is going to be key for him, especially in the conference tournament, but 2018-19 was a fantastic continuation of what he did in 17-18.

Let’s talk point guard play. Laquincy Rideau, of course, has taken the single-season steals record and padded his lead on it. Has that come at a price of sloppy ball control?

Do 103 turnovers (3.67 per game) counteract 80 steals (2.58 per game)? Does his 55.6 percent free throw shooting counteract the value he brings? If we’re talking value, absolutely not.

Let’s not discount some of those valuable performances. His heroics against UConn to open conference slate were remarkable in his 25-point, eight-rebound performance. His 26 against Cincinnati on the road kept USF competitive late against the second-best team in the conference. He turned in 28 against FIU in December, and added 21 in a painful loss to The Citadel.

And most importantly to prove his value to the team, Rideau was named 2019 AAC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday. As a point guard. So, if he heals up his foot and works on more consistent offense, he’ll be just fine to lead this team to greater things next season.

We could talk on each individual member of this team — they all have their strong suits and quirks — but there’s a lot to be excited about. Michael Durr is increasingly becoming a fantastic rebounder. Since Yetna’s injury, Durr has averaged 7.8 rebounds per game and 2.7 offensive rebounds per game.

His mid-range shot is developing, just as Antun Maricevic’s three-pointer has evolved in recent weeks. USF showed flashes of that potential in the home game versus C. and didn’t get back to it a whole lot. It will be key for the Bulls to find that mid-range stroke in the AAC tourney in a world of three-pointers, dunks, and layups.

Add Justin Brown and TJ Lang’s three-point ability and Xavier Castaneda’s improving ball distribution into the mix and put it all together. That’s a pretty good team sitting in the eighth seed.

It all just needs to come at once.

So yeah, there’s some disappointment involved when you look at the back half of the season. But, you have to have expectations for that disappointment to come. There wasn’t a whole lot of expectations coming into the year, which is why everyone was shocked and excited when USF jumped out to that 12-3 start.

Some even started plans for Gregory’s statue. [Ed. Note: @ me next time William.]

This team is truly ahead of schedule. Remember, USF was picked to finish last in the AAC this season. They were as high as fifth at one point.

So don’t bail now. Get on the bandwagon while there’s still room. A year from now, USF may just be fighting for the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played. Everyone on this team is returning except for Lang, Nikola Scekic and Ron Lubin. Former Oklahoma State four-star recruit Ezacuras (Zac) Dawson makes his debut next year, plus Gregory has added some freshmen talent to a roster that is already stocked with good players.

Next year marks year zero of the Gregory era — the move from building a foundation to putting the walls on the house that is this men’s basketball team.

The house isn’t ready to sell just yet. Give it time. It’ll be ready soon.