Jawanza Poland's year got off to a painful start.
The junior guard missed the first nine games due a bad back and then had to sit out a two-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.
So it figured he'd be rusty coming back, which he was, as he went scoreless for 10 minutes against Cleveland State.
After that, though, Poland put it together, scoring 13 second-half points that included three 3-pointers and a highlight reel dunk, giving South Florida reason to hope he could make it a better team as it enters league play.
The Bulls have been fine at home, going 6-1, but have yet to find victory on the road, losing a couple of tough games, including the final non-conference game at Southern Mississippi by a point.
More important to coach Stan Heath was the improvement he was seeing, Cleveland State being a solid team that won 10 of its first 12 games and Southern Miss being anything but a pushover, also at 10-2 with six straight victories, including wins over teams from the SEC (Ole Miss), Pac-12 (Arizona State) and Big East (USF).
Heath said he believed, after the Cleveland State game, that his team was ready for the Big East.
"I was really proud of our team tonight," Heath said. "We just beat a very good basketball team. It wasn't easy; I saw some guys on the floor and some blood on some jerseys."
--The Bulls bring an experienced team into Big East play. They return players who accounted for 77 percent of the scoring and 67.8 percent of the rebounds last season. Four starters -- forwards Augustus Gilchrst and Ron Anderson Jr. and guards Jawanza Poland and Hugh Robinson -- return, as do G Shaun Noriega and F Toarlyn Fitzpatric, players who played in every game last year. Sophomore Victor Rudd, a transfer from Arizona, also has experience after sitting out a year.
--The Sun Dome, the Bulls' home arena, has been gutted and is undergoing $36.5 million in renovations aimed at making it one of the top basketball arenas in the nation. It is slated to reopen in April 2012.
BY THE NUMBERS: 18 -- F Augustus Gilchrist has become the 18th player in Bulls history to surpass 1,000 career points, doing it in with 11 points in the tough loss at Southern Mississippi.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We just have to go and get better from this. It certainly was a game that was a winnable game for us." -- Coach Stan Heath after his South Florida team lost its final non-conference tune-up by a point at Southern Mississippi.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Connecticut, Dec. 28.
KEY MATCHUPS: Home sweet home. That's the story for South Florida, which gets to play its first two conference games at home, where the Bulls are 6-1. They played Connecticut close last season in Hartford, losing 66-61 in overtime. They have beaten UConn only once, that being a 75-68 decision at the Sun Dome in 2010. Kemba Walker scored 24 and had 8 rebounds for UConn while Anthony Crater hit a 3 at the buzzer for the Bulls to send the game to overtime.
--vs. Rutgers, Jan. 1.
A year ago South Florida could not stop James Beatty and Jonathan Mitchell in New Jersey, both of them scoring 20 points as Rutgers won, 71-62. Both Beatty and Mitchell are gone this year and Rutgers is struggling, just 7-5 in its first 12 games. Gilvydas Biruta and Eli Carter are leading scorers for the balanced Scarlett Knights, both averaging 11 points a game. If USF can turn on some defensive pressure, Rutgers has not protected the ball well.
FUTURES MARKET: True freshman PG Anthony Collins is healed and was getting better and better as conference play approached. The point guard missed the season's first five games with an injury but dished out 36 assists while turning it over 21 times. He also reached double-figure scoring three times. He had at least six assists in five of his first seven games.
--F Ron Anderson Jr. returned for the Cleveland State game after missing two games due to illness. Anderson played 28 minutes, scoring 11 points and grabbing 7 rebounds.
--G Jawanza Poland saw his first action of the year against Cleveland State after missing nine games with a back injury and two more serving a suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.