TAMPA — When asked about his job security in the wake of USF's latest meltdown Saturday, coach Stan Heath spoke of brighter days, not another bleak March. Potential, not postmortems, was the tone.
"Sometimes looking out there, you've got three freshmen and sometimes a sophomore … and they've never been here before," Heath said minutes after the Bulls (12-19) squandered an 18-point second-half lead in a 66-65 loss at home to 9-21 Temple.
"This time last year they were playing AAU basketball. That's the recipe for tough games and they're going to learn from it. They're going to be better."
Prevalent question is, will Heath be around to nurture them?
New athletic director Mark Harlan likely will make his initial appraisal of USF's programs when Heath's 10th-seeded club takes the floor for tonight's American Athletic Conference tournament first-rounder (7, ESPNU, 98.7 FM) against Rutgers.
It's widely presumed determining Heath's status will be an initial priority for Harlan.
"I think there are some decisions to be made here, quite candidly," Harlan told USF's search advisory committee Tuesday.
"When that person is named and we get a chance to sit down and talk, hopefully we'll have a chance to discuss our program, where it is, the future of it," Heath said Saturday.
Specifically, Heath will note the dearth of seniors and surplus of rookies — who composed one of the Bulls' best signing classes ever — on the current roster.
He might show Harlan video clips of the promise brandished by freshmen big men John Egbunu and Chris Perry, both of whom were named to the American's all-rookie team Tuesday.
He'll surely mention the lingering knee problems that sidelined junior point guard Anthony Collins for the conference portion of the season. He'll indicate how his son Josh, another freshman, gained priceless experience after being thrust into a league laden with veteran guards.
"There are so many good pieces, I'd hate to see that not stay the course," he said.
Such is the collateral Heath, who signed a six-year contract extension two summers ago, will lay on Harlan's desk. At this juncture of his seven-season tenure in Tampa, using the future to buy time seems his lone option. There's no more equity in the past.
Since coming within two crucial whistles of reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012, USF has 24 victories. During that stretch, it has endured conference losing streaks of 10 and eight games.
For the second consecutive year, the Bulls will finish last in their league in scoring; they rank 350th of 351 Division I teams in 3-point percentage (26.1). Their average home attendance (4,406) ranks eighth of 10 league teams.
"I don't think people understand how hard it is to coach young guys and new guys," said Bulls guard Martino Brock, one of two seniors.
"Junior college doesn't simulate (conference play), high school doesn't simulate it, so people don't know how hard it is for Coach Heath to have to show them and draw a picture of what they're going to see on game day."
The injury to Collins — a catalyst of that '12 postseason run — had a debilitating domino effect, forcing rookies (i.e. Josh Heath) to remove their redshirts and others to play out of position.
With no guard capable of consistent penetration, open looks from the outside were at a premium. But though Collins qualifies as a sound alibi for this season's shortcomings, it doesn't wholly explain Heath's 97-128 record at USF.
So with his most compelling pitch possible, Heath will sell the future. And hope Harlan is buying.
"Unfortunately, they could've had some wins that would've built their confidence or self-esteem," Heath said.
"But I don't have any doubt we're going to be very good. But it's been tough and we're going to be stronger, we're going to be better, we're going to go through this and we're going to be a better group of guys getting out of this."