Stan Heath has a dilemma. He has arguably the hottest team in the nation, riding a four-game win streak with consecutive victories against ranked Big East foes. His team has developed a winning chemistry that it would seem foolhardy to tamper with.
But sitting on his bench, now relatively healthy, is a player who has always been considered a difference maker. The question for Heath is: Will the difference Gus Gilchrist's return makes be a positive one, or one that upsets his team's perhaps delicate balance?
"We've gotta be smart when he comes back to ease him into what we're doing," Heath admitted. "We can't just go back to how we were, but eventually he'll be a guy that's very effective out there."
During the eight games before Gilchrist was sidelined with a severe ankle sprain, he certainly was effective. The sophomore was leading the Bulls in scoring (18.8) and rebounding (7.4). He topped the team in points five times, and rebounds three times before going to the trainer's table.
USF's immediate response to Gilchrist's departure was a bad home loss against Central Michigan. But since, the Bulls have found themselves, gone 8-5 and worked their way into the Big East race.
With that said, however, the return to form of a healthy Gilchrist has exciting possibilities.
"That was a huge setback losing him because he was a big part of everything we were doing. A guy like him took some pressure off Dominique (Jones) and I think he can be even more effective in some different ways," Heath said. "Would I have taken (8-6 without Gilchrist)? Probably, but I'm still one of those guys that feels that every time we take the floor, we have a chance to win."
A look at Gilchrist's early season efforts points to some specific areas where the Bulls could improve upon his return. Although he's a 6-10 forward, Gilchrist was the team's leading three-point shooter, making 8 of his 11 attempts. Despite missing 14 games, those eight makes still rank him third on the team behind Jones (38 makes) and senior guard Chris Howard (19).
Gilchrist was also leading the team at the foul line, connecting on 81-percent (48-59) of his free throws, and his 11 blocked shots are still good enough for No. 3 on the team.
Despite that, there are some concerns about how to work Gilchrist into what has become a winning formula without him.
"It's going to be rough," Howard admitted. "When Gus gets back, we've got to fit him in to what we've been doing and keep that same rhythm. When we get him, hopefully the train can keep going forward at the speed it's going."
The one player who has perhaps benefited the most from Gilchrist's absence is freshman forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick. With Gilchrist and senior Alex Rivas both sidelined, Fitzpatrick was pressed into action that he didn't figure to get, but he has responded with a season worthy of Big East All-Freshman consideration.
Essentially a second-choice signee when the Bulls missed out on top recruiting target Keith Clanton (UCF), Fitzpatrick's development has been rapid. In 10 Big East games, he's averaging 7.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 26.7 minutes per game. He also hit the biggest shot of the season at Providence in the victory that started USF on its current streak.
Gilchrist's return, however, will alter Fitzpatrick's role.
"Toarlyn probably won't play as many minutes, but Toarlyn's playing very well. Jarrid (Famous) will get more of a blow and it'll be good because Alex has really come along, too. Our front line guys will probably be stronger and fresher," Heath said.
"In this league, I think you have to have bodies. I think the grind, the wear and tear of the year, you've got to have guys. My goal, when you have eight or nine guys, is to play at a high intensity level. Sometimes when you're playing 40-45 minutes, you're trying to figure out a few possessions here and there where you can catch your breath. By getting Gus back, I think we'll eliminate that with our front line. We'll be a better rebounding team and it'll open up the floor. Not only is Gus Gilchrist a good player, but he's our leading three-point shooter. And right now it's hard to get one of those to go down except when Dominique shoots it."
How Will Bulls React to Gilchrist's Return?
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