Can you believe it? South Florida Bulls men’s basketball starts in mere hours. It’s been a long time coming since Laquincy Rideau’s game-winning three splashed down in March to (unknowingly) end the Bulls season with a win.
Things are a bit different this season under head coach Brian Gregory. The backcourt has a giant hole to fill with Rideau’s departure, the frontcourt gets Alexis Yetna back, and then #TransferSZN has been kind to the Bulls.
Fans won’t be in the stands for non-conference play due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every game will be shown on ESPN+. We told you that you’d need this link.
Let’s dig in.
2019 Recap: 14-17, 7-11 AAC. Key wins: UCF, at Memphis, UConn
Key Returners: G David Collins (13.7 PPG), G/F Justin Brown (9.1 PPG, 33.5% 3PT), C Michael Durr (6.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG), G Xavier Castenada (5.2 PPG)
Key Losses: Rideau (12.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.48 SPG), PF Antun Maricevic (4.2 PPG, 59% FG), G Zack Dawson (Opt-out), B.J. Mack (Transfer)
Important Games: 11/28 Rhode Island, 11/29 Virginia Tech (Basketball Hall of Fame Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament); 12/12 LSU (Holiday Hoopsgiving); at Cincinnati 12/16; at Memphis 12/29; UCF 1/2/21; at UCF 2/17/21; AAC Tournament March 11-14
When you think about USF under Gregory, the first thing you think of is defense (and maybe missed free throws, but we’ll get to that). Without former AAC Defensive Player of the Year Laquincy Rideau, how will Castaneda, and Murphy help pick up the slack on the defensive end of the court?
While tenacious, Castaneda has been bullied by bigger guards during his career. He’s going to have to shoulder the bulk of the workload early on as Murphy figures out the speed of the college game. Rideau and David Collins paired to be one of the most aggressive, and successful backcourt tandems in the AAC at creating easy fast break points due to their nose for the ball. USF returns just over 60% of their steals from last year, and Rideau accounted for 77 of the 90 steals lost.
With the return of Yetna, Durr and the additions of 7’0, 260 C Russel Tchewa, the Bulls frontcourt has enough skill, and size to match up with some of the better teams in the conference. It’s going to be up to Collins, Murphy, and Castaneda to limit the amount of penetration defensively to allow the bigs to clean up down low.
Gregory told reporters this week that Yetna has looked rusty in his first full week back practicing, and that they’ll take it easy with him to begin the year. Quite frankly, the hopes and aspirations of this team rely on the health of his reconstructed knee. If Yetna can’t return to form, it could prove to be a long season trying to manufacture offense.
Speaking of offense, there are still a lot of question marks. Gregory has mentioned a number of times that the Bulls will be able to play with a bit more pace than in years past, but how effective Castaneda is at running the break, as well as the half-court sets will be vital to the success of the team. He’s shown a hesitancy to shoot open three’s (something we’ll miss from Rideau—good and bad), and has had trouble getting the ball up court against the press. With how Gregory and his staff recruited other areas, he seems pretty locked in on X running the show with Collins, and Murphy getting some run as well.
Mississippi State and Siena transfer Prince Oduro will also be heavily involved. He averaged 9.1 PPG at Siena, where he started in 27 games. He transferred to MSU, and never found a role. Iowa State transfer Luke Anderson is rumored to have a decent stroke from deep to help from outside.
This team does not have a consistent threat from three, and we’ve all seen what happens when this team gets on a cold streak, and the offense bogs down because teams pack the paint and dare the Bulls to shoot from outside. Justin Brown is a streaky shooter, and as a senior he needs to be a more reliable threat from deep. The Bulls will need to find at least one other sniper to help ease the pressure for Brown.
FREE THROWS FREE THROWS FREE THROWS
Far too many times this team has let leads, and wins vanish because they can’t hit consistently from the charity stripe with the game on the line. Without Rideau’s 56% dragging the team back, USF should find a bit more success. Only Brown made more than 70% of his FTs last season, and he only got to the line 51 times. Collins was told by NBA scouts that he needed to work on his three-point shooting and free throws. Let’s hope he took that to heart during the offseason.
F Rashun Williams, and G Jamir Chaplin will need to carve out a role after getting lost in the shuffle a bit last season. Williams showed flashes of athleticism in his limited minutes. Chaplin is a virtual unknown still after just averaging under five minutes per game.
What’s a successful season for Brian Gregory in year four? NIT? NCAA Tournament or bust?
While there are many good pieces on the roster, if the Bulls can’t find a reliable point guard to execute the offense, and play average-to-good defense, they will struggle through a very difficult conference slate. They could toil around .500 for the season because this is a weakness you cannot hide every night.
If Castaneda proves that he has taken the leap, and Murphy shows he can handle stints at PG in relief, this team is coached well enough, and has enough talent to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid. NIT is a good season, a Tourny bid is a great one.