Kevin C. Cox
Yes, the Bulls are a very small basketball team. Adjusting to the major difference in personnel will be a big key to success in 2012.
When Waverly Austin was not allowed to join the Bulls this Fall, it left a gaping hole on the block. Combined with the loss of seniors Ron Anderson Jr. and Gus Gilchrist, the Bulls are a team that will be looking up at the bigger post presences of the Big East. Losing Hugh Robertson's ability to defend bigger players despite mostly being a wing himself makes the shift up the size food chain even bigger.
Remember Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, the small forward that occasionally got some time at the 4 when the Bulls went small? He's now your starting center. Arizona State transfer and senior Victor Rudd, who came to USF as a 6'9, 188 lb. swing player with a silky scoring touch? He's your starting power forward, granted now 45 pounds heavier than upon his arrival.
This was one of the best defensive teams in college basketball last year. They finished 7th in points per game allowed (56.6 ppg) and 6th in effective field goal percentage allowed (43.4%), but the stat heads would point to the tempo-free 0.94 points per possession allowed as what really defined the best season in USF history. Scoring was secondary to their ability to lock down opponents and get stop after stop after stop. But with the sudden and severe lack of size down low, can the characteristics of last year's dream run define another successful team?
It's most likely time to adjust. And in Stan Heath's years in Tampa, he's shown a remarkable ability to change the system he's using to his personnel. Whether it was ball reversals to get Dominique Jones looks coming off curls, or using him as a point guard when needed, the idea was never "this is how we want to do things," but rather "this is the best way we see to get things done." The 2011-12 Bulls started as a team that wanted to get out and run when possible; he turned them into an under-60 possessions per game juggernaut that played stifling defense on its way to making school history. In terms of X's and O's the Bulls we're simply brilliant last year, and that will need to continue due to the lack of front court beef.
Heath offered a projected starting lineup of Preseason All-Big East point guard Anthony Collins, South Alabama transfer Martino Brock at the two, senior sharpshooter Shaun Noriega at small forward, Rudd, and Fitzpatrick. On paper this is a team that can score in bunches, but doesn't have nearly the defensive presence as the last edition. Instead of winning games in the 40's and 50's, scores in the 60's and 70's are more likely necessary to get this team back to the NCAA Tournament.
As the Miami Heat and several college teams have shown, you can smallball your way to winning in modern basketball. It's tougher at the NCAA level because of the zone defenses that allow big men to roam the paint freely, but it can be done. The keys will be the ability to space the floor, and knock down threes at a better rate than last season. Last year's 31.6% from distance was 280th in America, and that simply won't get it done this year.
Anthony Collins was only 7-24 from three, and he'll need to extend his range in addition to running the offense, but he's not a player you would put such things past. Brock shot 34.3% in his sophomore season behind the line at USA. Noriega was 36.5% last year, and Rudd 30.6%. And of course on this unconventional team, the newly-christened center Fitzpatrick has been the best Bulls bomber at 41.2%. No matter the system, all these numbers will need to rise for the Bulls to compete night in and night out this season.
Smaller teams also tend to run offensive systems that spread the floor, and use less screen-rolls and ball side post-up sets. The Bulls look an ideal candidate for a Princeton-style system using spacing, cutting backdoor, and shooting from distance, but lack the passing big man that often makes that offense effective. On paper you would think the Bulls will run a lot of 1-4 offense, giving Collins the rock at the top of the key and use his ability to create off the bounce, and mix in his patented tear drop in the lane. 1-4 and stack looks rely on off-ball screens to free other players and get mismatches, which could have the Bulls using their smaller and quicker lineups to shoot over or go around bigger, slower defenders.
Whatever adjustments are made, they'll be crucial to ensuring if the success can be sustained this season. And most likely the team you see opening night against UCF won't look very similar to the one you see in March at MSG.