Sam Donnellon: Underrated South Florida will test Temple

South Florida's Anthony Collins drives to basket as California's Justin Cobbs looks on.
South Florida's Anthony Collins drives to basket as California's Justin Cobbs looks on. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 15, 2012

DAYTON – To fans, they’re ugly. To foes, they’re party poopers. Even mothers probably have a hard time watching their sons play for The University of South Florida on most nights.

But coaches? Villanova’s Jay Wright has nothing but nice things to say about the Bulls. Louisville’s Rick Pitino too. Even Fran Dunphy was a fan, tuning into their games several times during the season when he took a break from breaking down films of his own team.

"That’s a heck of a compliment," South Florida coach Stan Heath said, when told of this after his team earned the right to play Temple Friday night with a one-sided 65-54 victory over Cal at University of Dayton Arena.

"Of course I really wasn’t thinking about playing them when I enjoyed watching them play," Dunphy said earlier in the week. "But I like their team."

Picked to finish 14th in the Big East preseason poll, South Florida’s style of play has been described in all sorts of ugly manners. Pitino dubbed it a "root canal". A St. Petersburg columnist compared it to a whale emerging from a porpoise womb.

"We want to disrupt you," Heath said. "We want to smell your breath. We want to get underneath your skin. We want to make life miserable for you. And we want to do it the right way. We want to do it with moving feet and active hands and helping and talking and all those different things, and closing it with rebounds."

They did all that against Cal Wednesday night. But it was anything but ugly. The Bulls ran off a 36-13 halftime lead, spreading the floor, scoring inside and outside against a team that was advertised as quicker, and more athletic. Suffocated on the perimeter, swarmed and outsized underneath, the Bears – who like Temple advertised an intimidating array of guards -- made only five of 24 first-half shots including an 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.

"To be honest I have not watched anything on Temple," Heath said. "One of my assistants is going to fill me in tonight. I did see them earlier in the year watching film of when they beat Villanova. I know they have tremendous guard play." 

Then again, so did Cal. Jorge Gutierrez, the Pac-10s Player of the Year and defensive Player of the Year, ended the half with as many fouls as he had points - 2 - and had to be sat down for a stretch. The Bears first-half point total was the worst of its season. But until Villanova scored some late points in their Big East Conference loss to these guys, they too were in danger of setting a futility mark.

The bottom line is this is not the USF team that just a few weeks ago was dubbed an "NIT team" by bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Late wins against Cincinnati and Louisville and that blown opportunity in overtime against Notre Dame in the Garden during the Big East tournament all hinted at what happened last night, and what could happen again on Friday.

"I thought since maybe somewhere around mid-January, we were playing for our lives," said Heath. "We felt like almost any game we lost was an elimination game. And I think in some ways it might have been my fault that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and maybe I coached that way, where just every possession was just so important. And I felt once we got in the tournament and we talked about this like, hey, we're in a new season. Let's relax and play." 

"We've got some talent out there," Heath continued. "They've got some guys that can play. And I think you'll see us play more like this the rest of the way, that you'll see us be able to score a lot easier than we did before. We have more weapons. Gus Gilchrist, when he wants to be, he's as good as a post player as you'll find around the country. Ron Anderson didn't have a great game today, Fitzpatrick, but when my front line is playing well, and you saw what Rudd can do and Poland has some talent. We have some weapons. And if things aren't there, we've got a little guy right here that can make it happen by himself if he needs to." 

That would be freshman point guard, Anthony Collins, who scored 10 of his 12 points in USF’s explosive first half, who beat up every Cal defensive strategy with speed and smarts. "The only time I saw him panic, I was about to beat him in a video game," said Anderson. "Other than that he's been good."

Collins scored 10 points in the first half, and only one came via a jump shot. More importantly, he did not turn the ball over once, dribbling and passing his way out of any double-team or press Cal devised. Possession upon possession, he ran down the shot clock, wearing down Cal’s defense and in turn, stagnating any speed they could generate the other way.

A starter since December, Collins was passed over by programs nearer his home, programs like Baylor and Texas for one simple reason. "Just look at him," said Heath. "He doesn't look the part. He looks like your 12-year old kid down the street."

Shame on Stan. No one should be more aware that appearance does not equate to reality. Turns out, his Bulls aren’t that ugly. Just misunderstood.

Or were until last night.

"We know that we're a good basketball team," Ron Anderson Jr., the son of the former Sixer, was saying before the game. "We know how hard we work. And really the only thing, we just want the nation to understand that, too. We want the nation to know we're going out just like everybody else, working hard, fighting hard… And no matter how sloppy it is or unflashy it might be, we're still going to stick with our foundation and hope for the best."

"We were excited to get in here," said Heath. "But we did want to prove a little bit that we deserve and we belong and we're legit. And I think the kids took that to heart. But it's a building process and we took a big step in the right direction today. Now we want to take some more steps." 

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