At the end of a recent practice, USF men's basketball coach Rex Walters called his team together. He had a message to impart.
“Game night is supposed to be a celebration of how hard we've worked in practice,” Walters said.
That might be the best way to describe this offseason for the Dons, who enter the 2014-15 season with well-earned expectations. USF went 21-12 a season ago, punctuated by a 13-5 record and second-place finish in West Coast Conference play. The Dons came within a whisker of pushing past BYU in the conference tournament semifinals and earned an NIT bid, where they lost at home to LSU.
Unwavering confidence permeated the late-season surge, which included a six-game win streak.
“That's when we got the mindset that we can roll everybody over,” said Mark Tollefsen, a 6-foot-9 junior swingman.
The sting from those two losses against the Cougars and Tigers stuck in each player's mind.
“We felt like those should've been our games,” said Matt Glover, a senior guard. “We took that into the summer. We want to try to show everyone that we are as good as we say we are.”
They embraced the offseason grind with grit. In August, Walters said it was “the most competitive he'd seen” in his seven years at USF.
Glover and Tollefsen are two key components that will help offset the losses of forward Cole Dickerson (graduation) and point guard Avry Holmes (transfer to Clemson), both of whom were all-conference last season.
Glover, who led the Dons with 108 assists last season, has taken over the point guard role.
“His will to win, his toughness and his work ethic are as good as anyone I've ever coached,” said Walters, a former NBA guard. “He's our point guard — I'm very confident in saying that.”
Thanks to a talented crop of newcomers, headlined by freshman point guards Devin Watson and Frankie Ferrari, the Dons — picked to finish fourth in the WCC — will go 10 to 11 deep. Walters has noted that even if Holmes had not departed, Watson and Ferrari would have seen serious time this season.
The addition of 6-10 junior rim protector Derrell Robertson, who played in all 61 games during two seasons at DePaul before sitting out last year as a transfer, in the frontcourt alongside 6-7 senior forward and preseason All-WCC pick Kruize Pinkins (12.2 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game) and Tollefsen, whose 30 blocks led the team in 2013-14, will allow the Dons to extend their ravenous defensive pressure.
Glover, who likes the balance between guards and posts, said “We have a high level of talent, so it makes every single guy bring it every single day.”
Tollefsen thinks USF will be quicker, faster and longer.
“This team is taking ownership in the fact that we work hard,” Walters said. “They stick their chests out. If we continue to do that, we'll have a chance to do some good things. These guys are on the right track.”