TAMPA — On New Year’s Eve, it’s another new era for the University of South Florida men’s basketball team. The Bulls (9-4) begin play in their fifth league — the American Athletic Conference — when the No. 18-ranked Memphis Tigers (9-2) visit the Sun Dome tonight.
“We can definitely contend with the top teams in our league,” said USF coach Stan Heath.
He added this qualifier: “With a healthy Anthony Collins.”
These days, that isn’t a sure thing.
Collins, a junior point guard who was second-team All-AAC in the preseason, has missed three consecutive games with soreness in his left knee, which also has a touch of tendinitis.
“Every day it feels different,” said Collins, who also sat out the season’s first two games. “Hopefully, one day I’ll walk in and it will feel much better. Whenever my body feels right (is when I’ll play).”
Collins underwent knee surgery in September, but Heath never envisioned physical problems lingering this far into the season. Heath referred to it as “Nightmare 101.”
“It’s not me (deciding when Collins can play), it’s him,” Heath said. “He doesn’t have his range of motion or his speed. It’s more pain than anything. He has a high pain tolerance, but the knee is a sensitive area.”
“We need him back, but we want him back healthy,” Bulls senior forward Victor Rudd said. “It’s easy in the first part of the game, but in a tight game, you notice him not being on the court. He’s a smart player and you miss that.”
Heath said junior Shemiye McLendon, a transfer from Hofstra, will likely get the start at point guard with Corey Allen Jr. also sharing some of the ball-handing responsibilities.
“Shemiye, he’s not A.C., but he gives us a decision-maker out there,” Heath said. “He’s getting a better understanding of what we need him to do. The main guy affected is Corey Allen with more responsibility at the point (taking away from his scoring). We’ve got to get him going.”
Regardless of USF’s ever-changing lineup, the Bulls have done nothing but play close games. In fact, the Bulls haven’t been involved in a game decided by more than five points since Nov. 25, a stretch of eight straight games.
And that has made the team’s biggest weakness — poor free-throw shooting — into a glaring area of concern.
The Bulls are shooting an AAC-worst 65.4 percent from the line with three important players — John Egbunu (58.8), Martino Brock (53.7), Chris Perry (42.9) — at sub-60 percent.
“I don’t think we have a bad free-throw shooter on our team,” Rudd said. “We just have to translate it from practice into the games and be more confident.”
It was particularly painful during a 66-65 loss against Santa Clara at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. The Bulls were 9-for-24 from the line.
“We’re leaving about eight points on the floor every night (with poor free-throw shooting),” Heath said. “We’ve tried to do little bit of everything — shoot quantity before practice, pressure free throws during practice, finish up with quantity. There’s a mental side to it and a couple of guys, when they get to the line, they freeze up.
“We’ve got to get that fixed, particularly with all the close games we’re playing. In a lot of ways, the close wins have helped us. Conference play will be like that. We’re starting with a quality opponent in Memphis and it would be great to start on a good note.”