Could the Johnnies be this year's USF?

Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

South Florida head coach Stan Heath knows about leaping in the Big East, and thinks St. John's could be that team this season.

There always seems to be that one surprising team every year. In the Big East, there are so many programs and so many talented players. The difference between the fourth-best and tenth-best teams is minimal.

Such a theory poses a somewhat-credible reason why a team can be predicted to finish in 14th place, only to surpass all expectations and tie for 4th. It seems to say that a program can rise from irrelevance to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in twenty years, then win two games once there.

For comparison, the Red Storm of 2011 made it to the NCAA Tournament and were the darlings of the Big East with their Lavin-led resurgence, but that team had been through the Big East battles for four years - they were veterans.

USF couldn't say the same. The Bulls' roster was made up of some veterans and some junior college players and a freshman point guard. But South Florida made a leap.

Maybe they were just overlooked. Or perhaps the right combination of youth and experience came together at the right time.

Former perennial doormat USF increased its win total by an incredible ten overall and nine conference games in 2011-12. Yes, that South Florida. Was it a dream? A Disney fairy tale?

Nope.

The turnaround was powered by good, hard, concentrated defense. Like they teach you in the skills camps - slap the floor, pull up the shorts, and stick out the tongue.

The Bulls won often once Big East play started, and they won ugly. By holding opponents under 60 points per game, Stan Heath's squad found a way to have its most successful season since moving to the Big East in 2005 - all without having a single player average 10 points per game.

With a formidable front line in Augustus Gilchrist and Ron Anderson Jr., along with scrappy guards Anthony Collins and Jawanza Poland, the Bulls were able to make opponents work for everything they got (or didn't get) - inside and out.

But all the publicity the Bulls received last February and March isn't translating as well six months later. Heath, who has 182 career coaching wins allocated between Kent State, Arkansas, and USF, sat patiently taking questions from few reporters at Big East Media Day, watching over the swarms that surrounded his colleagues Steve Lavin, Jay Wright, and John Thompson III.

Heath is considered by many as one of the nicest, most genuine of the fifteen coaches in the league. Naturally, he graciously reflected on what made last year's team his best since leading Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002.

"We have personnel in place that can guard you 1-on-1 without a lot of help, so we can play without rotating a whole lot," Heath told the Rumble. "We try to make sure we don't give up certain things. We don't give up the paint and give teams easy baskets."

In the case of St. John's, a similar model will be necessary to find consistency in 2012-13. Defensive pressure and undivided attention to stop the ball will be essential for a young team that, outside of D`Angelo Harrison, has only unproven or unknown sources of sustained offense.

Luckily for the Johnnies, doing so will be a much easier task than it was a year ago. With added depth and the return of Steve Lavin, the Red Storm should revert back to its 2010-11 ways, making guards uncomfortable in the backcourt and concentrating on rebounding.

"Those guys came in a little shorthanded against us last year, but going to New York and playing them is going to be awfully tough," Heath continued. "I'm sure the younger guys have improved and matured. Now you add guys like JaKarr Sampson, who I've watched a lot over the years. They have more guys on the front line to help them."

The Johnnies' defensive philosophies, even with the extra bodies, are based on high risks and high rewards. Even at their best, the hunger for turnovers can lead directly for high-percentage looks upon break.

Playing with six players diminished the Red Storm's defensive tenacity a season ago, but none more importantly than affecting their ability to allocate their attention to the shooters and the post. Now, with four players at 6'7" or taller (instead of just one), St. John's can defend down low while allowing the guards to direct a larger percentage of focus to perimeter pressure.

"And obviously, just having your head coach back makes a difference," said Heath. "Those kids were recruited to play for Steve Lavin."

St. John's was voted by the Big East coaches to finish 10th in this year's 15-team league. USF was picked 8th.

It took South Florida a while in the Big East to become dangerous, but only a year to leap from "picked last" to "competitively dangerous." St. John's hopes the transition back to winning is just as rapid. The pieces are in place - it's now about integrating as a team and learning the system that has set teams up for success many times before.

"It won't be long until [St. John's] is a very dangerous team," Heath expressed with visible honesty. "They could be similar to what we did last year by coming out of nowhere to have a great season."

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