When South Florida coach Stan Heath is asked to about the impact star guard Dominique Jones has made this season, he does not reference one of Jones' baskets during his 46-point game against Providence earlier this season or a shot he took in upsets of Pittsburgh and Georgetown, but rather a routine pass that might have gone unnoticed by most people.
"Against Georgetown, he stole the ball with about eight seconds left," Heath said. "He had 29 points and he easily could have scored himself, wanting to get to over 30, but instead he threw the ball to Mike Mercer for a layup. It was an example of how Dominique knows now that scoring points is not as rewarding as winning, as lifting up his teammates."
Jones wasn't a selfish chucker during his first two years at South Florida, but he was an incomplete player and the Bulls were an incomplete team. Having played the role of doormat since joining the Big East in 2005, South Florida (15-8, 5-6) is now the surprise of the conference, sitting in prime position to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1992. And this is largely thanks to Jones, who has averaged 25.5 points per game in conference play (tops in the Big East).
"Since I've been here, we've gone through some adversity," Jones said. "People transferring, people not happy about this or that, people having their own agendas. Now, all those things have stopped. Now, all we are about is winning."
The turning point came on Jan. 23, when South Florida traveled to Providence with a 1-5 conference mark. A loss would likely have doomed the Bulls' season. USF trailed by nine with 58 seconds left, but, miraculously, South Florida managed to send the game into overtime and won 109-105 behind Jones' school-record offensive output of 46 points and 10 rebounds.
Jones followed that with a 28-point performance in an overtime victory over Seton Hall, a game Heath remembers for Jones' steal at the end of regulation that led to the basket that tied the game.
"He was never a bad defender," Heath said, "but the way he is finishing games and trying to make the key defensive play, it is a sign he has matured."
Jones arrived in Tampa with a chip on his shoulder, having been lightly recruited out of Lake Wales (Fla.) High. (South Florida was the only major-conference school to offer him a scholarship.) He learned quickly that he could score at the Big East level, averaging 17 and then 18 points per game his first two years, but he also discovered that putting up points while collecting losses was bittersweet.
"Scoring 30 or 40 and losing, I mean, nobody respects a loser," Jones said. "You've got to win to get respect."
Heath sensed this was a season the Bulls could finally get that respect, and after a 7-1 start they were on track. But then 6-foot-10 center Augustus Gilchrist, at the time the team's leading scorer, injured his ankle on Dec. 7. The Bulls struggled to adjust to his absence, suffering an embarrassing defeat at home to Central Michigan, and then they started Big East play with four consecutive losses.
But then Jones took over, becoming not only the team's primary offensive weapon but also its top distributor and emotional leader.
"Dominique individually did not need to learn to believe in himself, but the team as whole needed to believe," Heath said. "That happened after the Providence game and the change was amazing. Everything was elevated. Guys were working harder in practice, film sessions became more focused, and guys wanted to spend more time together and more time in the gym. They found a recipe that worked."
That recipe will soon add another ingredient: Gilchrist, who could return for Saturday's game at Marquette.
"Offensively and defensively we will have to adjust to having him back," Heath said," but it has the potential to make us better."
Jones recently said that he didn't see a team remaining on the schedule that the Bulls couldn't defeat, and given the way they have played, it would be hard to argue with him.
"I'm a big history guy," Jones said, "and what I am focused on now is winning and getting into the tournament. If I help get South Florida into the tournament, then 20 years from now when South Florida is ranked No. 1 in the country, people will look at the history and say, 'Dominique Jones started that program.'"