The questions cover their surprising winning season, Gus Gilchrist + Jarrid Famous' influence on the team, the roster breakdown, the brushes with controversy, and recruiting and player development for the team.
1 - South Florida is coming up in the standings a little bit, and I love to see the balance of power shift in the Big East. How is it happening? Is it just an improvement in Dominique Jones, or something more? Do they have a real chance at the NCAAs?
The talent level this year compared to last is a huge reason. Jarrid Famous, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, Mike Mercer, and Anthony Crater are huge improvements over Justin Leemow, Aris Williams, and Jesus Verdejo. Mercer was on the team last season, but he only played two games last year before tearing his ACL in early December.
I hope we have a chance at an NCAA bid. It's been 18 long years since the Bulls went The Dance, and I would love to see USF grab one of the last bids. The schedule is pretty favorable the rest of the season with St. John's, Providence, and UConn at home along with road games at Villanova and DePaul.
If we can get 5 wins from the remaining schedule and the Big East Tournament, hopefully that should push us over the top.
2 - Tell me about how Gus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous' (and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, as well) presences have changed the team. How do they improve the Bulls? How has Gilchrist looked returning from injury?
Overall the three bigs along with Alex Rivas have brought stability to the post. The guys be more aggressive on the defensive end has been a huge plus since they know that there will be a quality guy coming in if they get in foul trouble.
With Gus, the big thing was finding out that he was anemic over offseason conditioning. An iron supplement later and he has improved 100%. He is our best shooter on the team, and with his range, it allows Jones or Mike Mercer to get to the basket a little easier with one of the teams bigs out on the top of the key. He's starting to get back into the swing of things since his injury back in December, but it will be a work in progress the rest of the season.
Jarrid Famous has been fantastic in he low post. He uses his athleticism to gain position on slower guys down low, and there have been a few times where he has led the fast break and throws it down. He does try to go out to 10-15 feet, but hasn't had much success finding his jump shot. He is prone to get into some foul trouble, but it hasn't been much of a problem with the added depth. He did sit out against our game Tuesday vs. Cincinnati, but the MRI showed no damage and Heath said he will be good to go Saturday.
Fitzpatrick has been by far the biggest surprise on the team this season. Most thought he was going to be an afterthought this season, but with Gilchrist getting hurt he was thrown into the fire and has held his own down low. He does make freshman mistakes, and more experienced guys like [Luke] Harangody and [Lazar] Hayward have burned him, but they do that to most people anyways. He made the biggest basket of the season. Start around 23 seconds on this video.
That shot saved our season, and the fact that the team believed he could make that shot speaks volumes on his maturation this season. It will be great seeing what he can do over the next 3 years.
3 - Tell me about the roster - who are the major players at the point, at the wings/ guards, at the forwards? Why doesn't South Florida play much of their bench?
Chris Howard and Anthony Crater man the point most of the time for the Bulls, with Dominique Jones taking care of the ball every so often. Howard is the last holdover from the Robert McCullum era, and after coming back from two ACL tears, is finally coming into his own. Howard has done a good job this season distributing the ball. He will make a boneheaded pass once or twice a game, but most kids will. Howard does a really, really good at posting up smaller guards, and will hit a kick-out three if he is open.
Crater is quite possibly the quickest guard in USF history. He is starting to come into his own offensively, but his defense is what keeps him on the court. He creates havoc on opposing points, and you can count on him getting to one pass that no one should really have a chance at. His three-point shooting is lacking, but he is in there for defensive purposes and most teams know it.
Mike Mercer is an athletic 6'6 wing who gets his points driving to the basket and causing contact. Last game against Cincinnati he looked great shooting the ball in the first half, but it tapered off in the second. He is also another guy who will get in your face defensively. He's also good for one great dunk a night.
I think the reason we haven't had much of a bench, is because we haven't played with a healthy team all season. Once everyone is healthy, you should see Rivas, Fitzpatrick, and Crater as our three off the bench. If Ryan Kardok is in, something has gone horribly wrong.
4 - With the players who have come and gone from the program without graduating, and the negative media attention from hiring Gilchrist's handler/ trainer (and I think there was some other issue in December?), is there any bittersweet feeling about this (hopefully) successful season?
The large amount of transfers hurts more than the Woody hiring, but if it means an NCAA tournament big then it has all been worth it. The McMurphy article that you are referring to in December was picked apart by Greg Auman of the St. Pete Times. Most of the accusations, including an alleged NCAA Investigation was proven false. The large amount of transfers, including two this season has been my biggest worry. I think that Heath has seen 8 of his own recruits leave the program since he has been here. That has to stop if we want to continue our steady improvement.
5 - How is the recruiting and player development? What does the future look like in the next year and the next 3 years for the Bulls? What if Dominique Jones goes to the NBA?
Recruiting has been hit and miss for Heath. We do have LOIs from Chicago PG Lavonte Dority and C Waverly Austin along with pledges from JUCO guards Hugh Robertson and Shedrick Haynes. With the amount of people leaving, Heath has had to lean on transfers and junior colleges more than he would like, but he has his hands tied right now.
We lose Mercer, Rivas, and Howard this year, and it will be interesting how our two freshman guards, K-State transfer Ron Anderson, and our recruits will take their positions. Heath has said Anderson has been a big reason for the development of Famous and Fitzpatrick this year, and he could slide into the starting lineup next year.
Jones has said that he doesn't want to leave Tampa a loser, and has hinted if the team doesn't make the Sweet 16 that he will be back next season. Three months from now he could change his mind, but I really think that he wants to make a deep run in the tournament next year.