For the University of South Florida’s sagging men’s basketball program, it’s now about the future.
There is the immediate task of tonight’s appearance in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament, when the Bulls (12-19, 3-15) face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-20, 5-13) during an opening-round game at Memphis, Tenn.
Should the Bulls prevail, ending an eight-game losing streak, there is the specter of a Thursday afternoon quarterfinal against No. 5-ranked and defending national champion Louisville. With the reality of a beaten-down finish, it’s back to the future for USF basketball.
“I do think our program has a bright future,’’ said head coach Stan Heath, who has four years left on his contract, which calls for a $1.5 million buyout payment should a change be made.
USF’s freshman post players — 6-foot-10 center John Egbunu and 6-8 forward Chris Perry — are two of the biggest reasons for Heath’s optimism.
“There isn’t one coach or one TV person who saw us play this season who didn’t look at them and say, ‘Wow!’ ” Heath said. “When those guys figure some things out, you’ve got something special.’’
They already have shown promising flashes. Tuesday, Egbunu and Perry were named to the AAC’s All-Rookie Team.
Egbunu led all AAC freshmen with 6.2 rebounds per game and ranked fourth with 7.4 points per game. He led USF with 52 blocked shots and had his best game against Memphis on Dec. 31, when he compiled 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Perry ranks second among AAC freshmen in points (8.8) and rebounds (5.3). He had 17 games with double-digit points and five times was named AAC rookie of the week.
“Those guys have been a major factor this season, and they’re really going to be tough next year,’’ USF senior forward Victor Rudd said.
Egbunu, who was raised in Nigeria and has only played basketball for four years, has been a solid defensive force who has sometimes struggled to find his offensive game. That will come in time, Heath said, a point that was re-emphasized when USF recently visited Houston and Egbunu met former Rockets All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon.
“John has to keep working on his fundamentals, and that’s what Hakeem told him,” Heath said. “He used to be very emotional and bad calls would get to him. Now, it just rolls off his shoulders. He gets better every time out. He’s already so much more than just a runner and a dunker.’’
“For me, it’s all about consistency,’’ Egbunu said. “... I’ve learned a lot about college basketball in one year. I think I’ll be able to make a big jump (as a sophomore).’’
Perry feels the same way.
“I actually can’t wait for next year,” said Perry, from Bartow High, whose family has become a constant and vocal Sun Dome presence. “I love playing alongside John, because it has expanded my game so much. There definitely have been hard times, but I feel like we have made an investment. All the work is going to pay off.’’
Perhaps not immediately.
But the future could be special.