South Florida shooting guard Terrence Samuel, a contributing member of UConn’s 2014 national championship team, will make his return to Storrs tonight as UConn hosts the Bulls.
Samuel spent two years with the Huskies before transferring to Penn State, where he played only one season before moving on to USF. He has become a starter in his senior year in addition to being the Bulls’ best perimeter defender.
But while Samuel has improved, South Florida (8-16, 1-10 AAC) hasn’t gained much ground in head coach Brian Gregory’s first year. Gregory coached Dayton to two NCAA Tournament berths and an NIT championship in the 2000s, but struggled as Georgia Tech’s head coach, finishing ten games below .500 during his tenure with the Yellow Jackets.
Now with USF, Gregory is still coaching the worst statistical team in any important conference (the power five plus the AAC, Big East, Mountain West, West Coast, and Atlantic 10). That’s not his fault—the team was that bad last year as well—and it’s hard to draw recruits to a team with such little success.
That said, very little has changed for USF so far, and the one thing that Gregory has updated has been the team’s tempo. Last year, the Bulls played at an average pace; now they’re one of the slowest teams in the nation. It’s helped keep scores close a bit (three of their losses have come by two points or less), but it’s hard for pace alone to improve a team’s winning percentage. Some newcomers are making contributions, but only three scholarship players returned from last year’s team. Only one of last season’s top ten scorers are playing for the Bulls this season.
Suffice to say, they’re also having some problems. Most bad teams from good conferences are at least solid in one area or another. That’s not South Florida. They’re bad at pretty much everything.
That’s not to say they don’t have a couple of solid players, though. As mentioned earlier, Samuel is a good defensive specialist. Top scorer Stephen Jiggets is a respectable three-point shooter. Big man Malik Martin plays nice defense on the inside. Payton Banks, who transferred from Penn State with Samuel, is decently efficient. The issue for Gregory is that none of his guys are good two-way players (Banks and Samuel come closest), and they don’t really have much in the way of secondary skills. Basically, even the team’s best players would just be role players just about anywhere else in the conference.
That’s good news for the Huskies (11-12, 4-6), who are seeking to get back to .500 before their matchup against Wichita State on Saturday. While they shouldn’t overlook USF, Kevin Ollie’s game plan has to be pretty simple: don’t make mistakes. South Florida is not in the position to beat teams who don’t make a significant amount of mistakes. In their lone conference win, they attempted 37 free throws. In their only other win against a .500 opponent, Bethune-Cookman essentially forgot to play defense for the whole game.
Despite the mental mistakes and errors in game planning we’ve occasionally seen from UConn this year, the Huskies are nowhere near bad enough to lose to South Florida at home. As long as they stay focused, they’ll be in good shape to win this one.
PREDICTION: UConn 70, South Florida 55