In a conference as deep and talented as the Big East, much attention is given to the programs who have been established for quite some time. After all, those are the schools that are competing for the conference title, at-large bids to the NCAA tournament and the like.
Buried beneath all of those schools, however, are a handful of other programs hoping to one day make their way to the top. Such is the case for South Florida, which visits the Coliseum Saturday afternoon for the first of two meetings this season against West Virginia. The Bulls are in the second year of a massive rebuilding job under former Kent State and Arkansas head coach Stan Heath.
Though his program falls somewhere between the top of the league and the bottom, WVU head coach Bob Huggins does feel a little bit of Heath's pain.
"I think the hard thing in this league is who do you pass?" Huggins asked rhetorically. "Everybody wants to be in the top 25 and everybody wants to be in upper echelon of the league and then you start looking at who you have to pass. It's a pretty daunting task to pass UConn and Pitt and Georgetown and Syracuse and Villanova and the people who have been in the upper echelon of the league for years and years. It just makes it very difficult."
Despite the daunting task that lies ahead for the Bulls, who have yet to make the Big East Tournament since joining the league (note: they'll make it this year simply because the conference will now include all 16 teams in the five-day event at Madison Square Garden), there are plenty of signs of progress under second-year head coach Heath.
While USF's 6-10 record overall and 1-3 mark in the Big East might not strike fear into many casual observers, the way that the Bulls have played over the past few weeks has been proof of improvement. On Wednesday night, they played top-ranked Pitt tight for much of the game before the Panthers eventually pulled away for a 13-point win.
"They played really well," Huggins said. "They shot the ball incredibly well. Pitt guarded them, so they took hard shots, but they hit hard shots."
Leading the way has been sophomore guard Dominique Jones. The Lakeland, Fla. native flew under the radar during his freshman year at USF while other rookies such as Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Syracuse's Johnny Flynn and Donte Greene and grabbed headlines, but has returned as a refined and more complete player in year two.
Jones leads USF in scoring with an average of 17.4 points per game, and can score from long range or by driving to the hoop.
"He's a talented guy," Huggins said of the 6-4 sophomore. "You watch their last three or four games, if he gets an open shot he doesn't miss it. He knocks down seemingly every open shot. He's better with the ball. There are times when they'll play him up top and let him create. They came out of a timeout during the Pitt game and ran an iso for him. Before, I think he was more of a shooter. He's become more of a scorer."
Although Jones is the leading scorer, he isn't the only Bull capable of finding the hoop. Senior guard Jesus Verdejo chips in 14.4 points per game, and freshman forward/center Augustus Gilchrist adds 10.4 off the bench.
Gilchrist's name should be familiar to Mountaineer fans. After originally signing with Virginia Tech, he asked for and was granted his release by the Hokies following the tragic on-campus shootings in April of 2007. Gilchrist then ended up at Maryland, but transferred before ever seeing the floor in College Park. West Virginia pursued Gilchrist after each release, but he ultimately chose USF.
Since becoming eligible at the end of the first semester, his impact on the Bulls has been noticeable. Gilchrist has scored in double figures five times, including his career-high 22-point effort in the loss at Pitt.
"Gilchrist gives them another guy who can score," Huggins said. "He can really score the ball. He's 6-10, can play inside or can play on the perimeter. He's given them another option offensively."
With Jones and Gilchrist combining to form a talented nucleus, Heath's rebuilding effort in Tampa has a chance to be successful over the next few years.
"If you look at their team, they're young," Huggins said. "They start two seniors, but they're playing a bunch of young guys behind them. I think from a talent standpoint, they have certainly caught up with the rest of the league."