USF's coach has a record of rebuilding programs, and with a healthy bench, he might do it again.
By GREG AUMAN
Published November 20, 2004
TAMPA - Robert McCullum knows nothing about a sophomore jinx.
Instead of the feared second-year slump, he has pulled off the opposite in his three decades of coaching. His first season at a school, inevitably, is a transition year, a get-to-know season, and Year 2 is when players and coach come together to find success.
As an assistant under Lon Kruger, McCullum saw Florida start a streak of four postseason appearances in their second season in Gainesville. When he and Kruger moved to Illinois, they won a share of the Big Ten regular-season crown in their second year.
When McCullum got his first coaching job at Western Illinois, he went 7-21 in his first season, then 17-13 a year later, posting the seventh-best turnaround in all of college basketball.
And now, as McCullum's Bulls open his second season as USF coach tonight against Stephen F. Austin, the question is whether his trend will continue. It would be easy to improve on a season in which the Bulls went 7-20 and finished 1-15 in Conference USA, a difficult year that saw injuries and players quitting reduce the USF roster to six scholarship players by season's end.
USF moves into the Big East next season, and it needs a measure of success, a taste of confidence, as it moves into one of the nation's toughest basketball neighborhoods.
McCullum's players, even those who will be gone by the time the Bulls get to their new conference, understand the importance of this season.
"We will be as good as we want to be," said senior forward Terrence Leather, who led USF in scoring and rebounding last season.
Conference coaches picked the Bulls to finish last in a preseason poll, cementing USF's mentality as an underdog eager to prove the doubters wrong. The challenge in preseason practice has been integrating the old with the new.
Leather and point guard Brian Swift will be relied on as established leaders, the inside and outside building blocks. Key veterans James Holmes and Marlyn Bryant are back from injuries last season, and McCullum opens the season with a luxury he quickly lost in his first year: depth. Four newcomers will be counted on for minutes, especially junior center Solomon Jones and sophomore guard Marius Prekevicius, who are challenging as starters.
The Bulls lost two players before the season started, the worst loss being senior guard Bradley Mosley, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer and will sit out this season for treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center. Maurice Mobley, a junior-college transfer expected to provide depth inside, quit.
The Bulls played seven players in a preseason win Nov. 12 against Saint Leo, but freshmen guards Montavious Waters and Collin Dennis are expected to join the ranks of the healthy, perhaps as early as tonight.
Of the new players Jones has made the quickest impact, recording a double double with five blocks against Saint Leo. Prekevicius may have the best outside shot on the team, and the healthy return of Holmes and Bryant gives McCullum two athletic and versatile players capable of creating plays. Forward/center Brandon Brigman heeded McCullum's mandate that he stay under 250 pounds, and the coach said the senior enters the season in the best shape of his career.
Defense is a staple of McCullum's success, and this year's lineup has enough athletes to rely on a man-to-man defense. McCullum said that starts with Bryant, who had earned a promotion to the starting lineup just days before his season ended with a knee injury as conference play opened last year.
"Marlyn needs to be our team's defensive stopper," McCullum said. "He's very capable of taking on your opponent's best perimeter player." With tough early road opponents such as Michigan, South Carolina and Richmond, McCullum will know much about his team's second-year emergence before conference play begins. This season has the potential to be one discussed in terms of additions and not subtractions, about where his team is going instead of where his players have gone.
"Any time you're trying to integrate as many new players as we are in a short period of time, it's difficult," McCullum said. "Patience is certainly needed, but on the other hand, you're trying to give them a crash course because you need them to be prepared to play as soon as possible. We've worked hard to get to that point."
COACH: Robert McCullum (7-20, second season, 51-65 overall).
LAST SEASON: 7-20, 1-15 in Conference USA.
NOTABLE: The Bulls were picked to finish last by the conference coaches. The loss of guard Bradley Mosley, who will sit out the season while being treated for kidney cancer, will be difficult for the Bulls, who need freshmen guards Montavious Waters and Collin Dennis to step up as able reserves behind James Holmes. Junior center Solomon Jones, a transfer from Daytona Beach Community College, has impressed coaches in his first month on campus. Senior forward Terrence Leather returns as the team's leading scorer and rebounder.