TAMPA – University of South Florida men’s basketball coach Stan Heath remembers the first time he coached his youngest son, Josh. He filled in during an AAU tournament. Josh was about 8 years old.
“I played him a few minutes, then sat him down,’’ the coach said. “Then he cried. That one didn’t go so well.’’
So far, Josh Heath has fared considerably better in his USF debut.
With Bulls junior point guard Anthony Collins out for the past seven games – and likely the season, while exploring the probability of a medical hardship – the younger Heath has abandoned strategic plans to redshirt his freshman year.
“I’ll do whatever I can do to help the team,’’ he said.
He’s now a key figure for USF (10-7, 1-3 American Athletic Conference), which needs to reverse course on a slow start in its new league. That won’t be easy. On Saturday, the Bulls entertain the No. 19-ranked and AAC-leading Cincinnati Bearcats (16-2, 5-0) at 5 p.m. at the Sun Dome.
Wednesday night, the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals visit USF.\
The Bulls have drifted away from their cornerstone – defense – and must place more value in each possession, Stan Heath said. His son can help.
The younger Heath was the Tampa Tribune’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year in 2011-12 while a junior at Tampa Prep. He’s fundamentally sound, intelligent, skilled, savvy … and absolutely unflappable.
“He has that calming demeanor,’’ the coach said. “He settled us down. I think he has really helped us a lot.’’
In his USF debut, Heath had five assists and no turnovers in a road victory at Temple. His presence allowed Corey Allen Jr., to play off the ball and become more of the scoring threat that was seen in USF’s early season.
“We know he’s going to be a really good player,’’ Stan Heath said. “But to do it in your first game, on the road, and not have a turnover … that’s huge.’’
It might seem like a delicate balance – the coach talking about how his son figures into the lineup, the player taking instructions from his father – but it’s not a big deal for either Heath.
“Ever since I was little, I knew this could be a plan,’’ Josh Heath said of playing for his father. “Before my senior year, I called him and told him (about coming to USF). I’m sure he was expecting it. I like my team, my teammates, the coaching staff. I like everything about it.’’
The coach said his son was adamant about being treated like a normal player. Josh Heath lives in the dorms. He eats cafeteria food. On the court, he’s just another Bull.
“Josh makes it easy,’’ Stan Heath said. “He stays in basketball mode when we’re out here. If we’re at home, we have fun and joke around. (Then) I’m dad. He does a great job of understanding and separating the two.
“I don’t feel the need to be tough on him. He doesn’t really do anything that (makes me mad). He doesn’t put himself in bad spots and there’s a value to that. He’s going to make good decisions.’’
USF teammates have discovered that.
During a challenging second-half stretch at Temple, Bulls senior Victor Rudd looked to the bench and said, “We need Josh in there.’’
“I’m happy Josh is playing,’’ Rudd said. “I’m glad Ramona (Heath’s mother and the coach’s wife) let me borrow him for my senior year. You wanted him to keep the redshirt, but we needed him and we’re going to need him. He’s very solid and poised. He’s ready to play.’’
From the USF players, there have been no awkward moments with the father coaching his son.
“At first, we kind of didn’t know how we were going to feel about it,’’ Rudd said. “Josh is good, but we were like, ‘Is he going to yell at him?’ Really, Josh is so good, there’s no need. He’s like a mirror of A.C. (Collins) in a different body.’’
“I think it’s like a coach and a player, you can’t tell anything different,’’ Bulls sophomore JaVontae Hawkins said. “Josh fits in really well. I think he’ll continue to fill an important role on this team. If you can play, nothing else really matters. And he can play.’’
What: No. 19 Cincinnati at South Florida
RECORDS: Cincinnati 16-2 (5-0 American Athletic Conference), USF 10-7 (1-3).
WHERE/WHEN: USF Sun Dome, 5 p.m. Saturday
TV/RADIO: ESPNU/98.7 FM, 1010 AM.
NEED TO KNOW: Cincinnati, the lone team unbeaten in AAC play, enters with a nine-game winning streak. …USF is coming off a 71-54 loss at SMU, the seventh consecutive game the Bulls played without junior point guard Anthony Collins. …Bulls senior forward Victor Rudd surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his career (including the 38 points he scored as an Arizona State freshman) and needs 34 to reach 1,000 for his three seasons at USF. …With a victory, Cincinnati will have its best start under eighth-year coach Mick Cronin. …Cincinnati has held opponents under 70 points for 25 consecutive games – the longest streak in the nation.