TAMPA, Fla. – South Florida's Stan Heath looks at the rest of the American Athletic Conference and sees no reason why the Bulls shouldn't be competitive.
Winning the new league that formerly was part of the Big East may be a longshot, but the coach enters his seventh season at USF confident his team has what it takes to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
While defending national champion Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati and Temple all have tradition-laden programs with talented rosters that could make winning in the rebranded league difficult, Heath isn't conceding anything to the competition.
"I love the fact we're in a real true conference and play everybody twice," Heath said, noting that playing in a 16-team Big East didn't afford the same opportunity.
"You look at it from the outside and you say it's not as strong as the Big East, then look at playing all these teams double instead of single, and it will be a very competitive race. We've got defending national champion in our league. That says a lot right there."
Forward Victor Rudd and point guard Anthony Collins are the top returnees from a team that struggled offensively and finished a disappointing 12-19 last season, including 3-15 in the Big East.
The Bulls went 22-14 two years ago, making the most of their first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 20 years by advancing to the third round.
"We talk about it a little bit, but don't want to dwell on it too much. That was two years ago," said Rudd, the team's leading scorer (12.3) and rebounder (6.9) last season. "We've really got to focus on not being what we were last year."
Five things to watch as Heath tries to re-establish the Bulls as a program with a promising future:
TOUGH SLATE: Heath hopes a challenging pre-conference schedule that includes games against Oklahoma State, UNLV, Alabama, George Mason, Mississippi State, Bradley and 2013 NCAA tournament darling Florida Gulf Coast will not only prepare them for AAC play, but bolster the team's resume for the NCAA selection committee. "I think it's the right thing to do for this team. We'll find out exactly where we are and who we are before we get to conference play," the coach said.
STRONG LEADERSHIP: The Bulls will count on Rudd and Collins, whose stellar play keyed the Bulls' postseason run two years ago, show some talented but inexperienced young players how to cope with the ups and downs of conference play and what takes to win. "They've been through it, they've tasted success, and I know ... how hungry and motivated they are to get where we were two years ago," Heath said.
YOUNG HEATH: One of the team's top newcomers is freshman point guard Josh Heath, the coach's son. It will be interesting to see how dad guides his development. "I'm still finding out, fortunately I do have some friends who have been through it," the elder Heath said. "The good thing about Josh, he loves the game, he works hard, he's easy to coach. You tell him something, he just does it. I'm pretty comfortable with him."
OFF THE BENCH: Depth was a problem in the Big East. Making the NCAA tournament gave recruiting a boost, and Heath anticipates playing up to nine players on a regular basis — enough to endure foul trouble, minor injuries and playing at a faster pace on offense.
CHIP ON OUR SHOULDERS: Rudd takes issue with preseason prognosticators who pick the Bulls to finish in the lower half of the AAC. "We have it stapled on our lockers. It's disrespectful to us," the senior forward said. "But then again, if you look at the record, we can't really say too much. All we can do is come out and prove why we're not the 10th best team in our conference, why we should be where we think we should be."