When you examine Robert McCullum's first season as coach of the South Florida Bulls, there's an obvious bright spot. It's over. Done. Finished. And all South Florida fans are grateful for that.
The Bulls, who had a talented but underachieving program in recent years, weren't sweating on Selection Sunday. They hit the program's historic low point, going 1-15 in Conference USA and failing to qualify for the league tournament. They endured a nine-game losing streak and defeats in 15 of their final 16 games.
By season's end -- due to assorted defections, dismissals and injuries -- the Bulls were down to six scholarship players and three walk-ons.
Brutal? You bet. But somehow, McCullum detected positives. Others might be hard-pressed to imagine how the Bulls can escape the cellar in C-USA, then prepare for ascension to the Big East in 2005. McCullum sees a firm foundation, one built on the adversity of hardship.
"When you talk about things to build on, just the way we finished the year [was a positive]," said McCullum. "What our guys did in the last 12 games spoke volumes. How much they gave, the chemistry, the way they battled back from injuries, the minutes some of our players logged. We were eliminated from the conference tournament, but you couldn't tell that by the way we played.''
As McCullum points out, it's a start. But to finish the job, the Bulls must get a lot better -- and quickly.
FRONTCOURTSouth Florida has a player to build around in senior forward Terrence Leather, a nondescript performer for two years who suddenly became the team's go-to guy last season. Leather had eight double-doubles, and he became the program's most dependable force.
The Bulls will miss Gerrick Morris, who set the school's career shot-blocking record. Replacement possibilities include senior Brandon Brigman, a light contributor in his first three seasons, and sophomore Konimba Diarra, who McCullum said has an encouraging upside.
Senior Marlyn Bryant, who suffered a season-ending knee injury after 11 games, and sophomore transfer Marius Prekevicius will compete at small forward. The frontcourt is further bolstered by the presence of junior college transfers Maurice Mobley and Solomon Jones.
BACKCOURTDown the stretch, there were times when senior guard Bradley Mosley hardly left the court. Better suited for off-guard, he sometimes needed to play the point. Generally, he was asked to do a lot. Too often, that showed.
Mosley had 30 points in South Florida's only C-USA win, a 68-60 triumph against Southern Miss. On other occasions, though, he wasn't as successful in carrying the load. In particular, his outside shooting often was poor (he made just 22 percent of his 3-point attempts in C-USA games). "Freeing Bradley up, and not having him play at point guard, will really help him," McCullum said.
So will South Florida's much-improved depth. Senior Brian Swift, a 40.0-percent shooter from 3-point range, and freshman Montavious Waters, very good at breaking down a defense off the dribble, figure to line up at point guard. James Holmes will back up Mosley, while freshman Collin Dennis could work into the rotation, as well. In a pinch, Prekevicius might get some backcourt time.
FINAL ANALYSISIn some ways, McCullum has been here before. At his first head coaching stop, Western Michigan, the Broncos were 7-21 in the initial season. There was 10-win improvement to 17-13, followed by a 20-11 mark and an NIT bid.
McCullum's plan is to implement the same sort of progress at South Florida. One major difference: Western Michigan plays in the Mid-American Conference, an underrated basketball league, but not at the level of C-USA. And it's certainly not comparable to South Florida's future home, the Big East.
The second season should be better, if only because South Florida now has a full roster. It can go two-deep at every position. It can practice effectively. Still, there's a long way to go.