Most college hoops coaches are happy to have one go-to guy on their roster. South Florida coach Stan Heath likes to think he has at least seven of them.
There are no stars in Heaths prosaic lineup, which features seven players who average between 6.8 and 9.6 points per game and none who score more than 10 a night. But the newly crowned Big East coach of the year has found a way to make his unconventional and often-unremarkable rotation work.
As a result, his 23-10 Bulls a perennial Big East hanger-on that had gone just 23-81 in conference play before this year have completed a long-awaited transformation and secured their first NCAA tournament berth since 1992 after the most impressive regular season in school history.
"History kind of shows that different teams have succeeded different ways," said Ron Anderson, Jr., who averages 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for the Bulls. "A lot of times nowadays people are more interested in the flashiness of a game or how high somebody's jumping or how many blocked shots you can get. But when it's all said and done, it all boils down to fundamentals."
USF will kick off its first NCAA appearance in two decades on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET in a First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio, against California, the winner advancing as a No. 12 seed to play fifth-seeded Temple on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
And Heath has every reason to believe that USFs unselfishness, balance and tough defense Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared playing USF to getting a root canal will outweigh its lack of star power, not just Wednesday, but throughout the tournament.
"We're going to have to sacrifice individualistic play, we're going to have to sacrifice scoring, we're going to have to build our team around toughness, defense and team play," Heath said Tuesday in Dayton. "And as a player you say to yourself, do I want to win or do I want to lose?
"You have to make that decision, and those guys made a decision that winning was the most important thing ahead of individualistic things, and that's why we are where we are."
South Floridas scoring rarely comes in large doses, but it always comes from different angles, making the Bulls difficult to plan for and even harder to defend once the game starts.
USF has had eight different players either lead or share the team lead in scoring in a game this season: Augustus Gilchrist (7 times); Anderson, Jr. (6); Anthony Collins (6); Victor Rudd, Jr. (5); Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (4); Jawanza Poland (3); Hugh Robertson (3); and Blake Nash (1).
Additionally, the Bulls have just six 20-point performances in 33 games this season (two by Rudd and one each from Collins, Fitzpatrick, Gilchrist and Poland), and only Rudd has scored 30 points in a game a 30-point outburst in a November win over Marist.
South Florida has only had a player score one-third or more of the teams points in five games, and the Bulls have had their leading scorer account for less than 20 percent of the teams overall output twice this year. (Poland led with 13 points in a 70-55 win over Cleveland State, and Robertson and Collins each had 15 in an 81-78 win over Providence a game in which five players scored at least 11 points.)
The Bulls could have one guy take the lead like USF star Dominique Jones did from 2008-10, when he averaged 17.1, 18.1 and 21.4 points per game but South Florida had just one winning season over that span, and Heath would rather see his team spread the wealth and win than stand around and watch one guy dominate in defeat.
"If they're going to put the energy and effort and really play out there together, they're going to have a chance to move along," Heath said of his team. "If all of a sudden someone sees the light come on (and says) I want to be the star and get 20 points, (and) they want to do it a different way, they want to give the effort, then you're going to have a short trip here."
South Floridas even distribution isnt limited to scoring, either. The Bulls also show equal balance on the boards, where theyve had five different players lead the team in rebounding this season Anderson, Jr. (11 times); Fitzpatrick (10); Gilchrist (7); Rudd (6); and Robertson (3) with their top five rebounders averaging between 4.3 and 6.6 boards per game.
USF had one 20-rebound performance this year (Robertsons 21 against Florida A&M) and no other individual performances of 15 or more (Fitzpatrick had 14 against Florida Atlantic), and the Bulls have only had the same player lead the team in both scoring and rebounding in a game six times.
Theres an argument to be made against teams like South Florida, one that says that teams without a go-to scorer have no one who can step up in crunch time, but before you write off the Bulls tournament chances, consider this:
In last years tournament, the first to include the First Four round, a similarly overlooked team with an up-and-coming coach and no true star made its way from the First Four to the Final Four when Virginia Commonwealth shocked fans and ruined brackets all across the country.
The 11th-seeded Rams earned a spot in the Field of 64 with a win over USC, then shocked Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the national semifinal and they did it with balance, as four key players averaging between 10.4 and 15.7 points per game. During the tournament, VCU had three different players take control and lead the team in scoring in a game.
"I want them to understand teams like VCU from last year were in the same situation as us," Heath said. "I want them to know you're in a select field of 68 teams that have legitimate chance to win the national championship, and anything can happen."
South Florida may be boring, but theyre effective. They dont run the type of whiz-bang offense that other underrated teams like Creighton or Davidson or Wichita State or BYU another First Four team have to offer, but its hard to argue with the results.
The Bulls, who were just 3-13 in Big East play a year ago, finished 12-6 in conference this season and picked up wins over both Cincinnati and Louisville the two finalists in last weeks Big East tournament.
Additionally, USF had to a strong showing against No. 1 seed Syracuse, who led the Bulls by just one point with less than five minutes left in their Feb. 22 matchup at the Carrier Dome. (That Syracuse squad, by the way, has become a Final Four favorite behind even point distribution, with their top six scorers all within six points per game of each other.)
"This year being that nobody's averaging double figures, everybody's coming in (and) knows their role," said Anderson, Jr., who reached the NCAA tournament during his freshman year while at Kansas State.
"We had to become a team and we had to build through the course of the year, and I think that's what makes coming back to the tournament, especially for my senior year, that much more sweet knowing that the road to get here had its challenges and we overcame a lot."
USF has never, in the history of its program, had a leading scorer average fewer than 10 points per game, but theyve also never reached this level of success. Still, though, it remains to be seen whether the Bulls unselfishness and even distribution can lead to tournament success.
But if VCU taught us anything last year, its that a First Four appearance is hardly a death sentence, star power doesnt necessarily breed success and a little bit of balance can go a long way.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner