TAMPA — He signed with USF back in its Conference USA days, expected to be the point guard who would lead the Bulls into the Big East and tonight, Chris Howard will do just that for the last time.
The senior has helped the Bulls to a 10-2 start, easily their best since joining the Big East, and Howard has stepped up in his final season with the best numbers of his USF career.
"I think he's had the best half-year of his career, in all areas," coach Stan Heath said Monday in preparation for tonight's Big East opener at Louisville. "Running a team, being a leader, shooting the ball, making decisions on the court, and defensively he's always been a very solid player."
Howard faced uncertainty entering the season as Heath picked up a top transfer from Ohio State, Anthony Crater, who is expected to join the team Jan. 10. Heath told Howard in the offseason that he had to be more than a point guard and had to provide a perimeter scoring threat to keep defenses from focusing on junior Dominique Jones, the team's top scorer for the third year in a row.
"That was a big emphasis on my game,'' Howard said. "Coach Heath stressed that I had to be able to make open shots if I wanted to stay on the floor and play the minutes I've been playing since I've been here. I think the time I put in shows when the lights are on and we're playing games. I'm getting open looks and I'm taking advantage."
Howard is averaging a career-high 10 points, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.17 is the highest in his four seasons. His shooting percentages are career highs: 46 percent from the field, 72 percent on free throws and 36 percent on 3-pointers.
If there's a constant for Howard, it's the leadership he has had since the fall of 2006, when then-coach Robert McCullum took him to New York for Big East media days as a redshirt freshman. Before he played a minute at USF, Howard overcame two torn ACLs in his left knee, the first a week before his freshman year started then again the following summer. He has been in a leadership role all along, but his voice carries more as a senior.
"I talk to (teammates) all the time about how they have it a lot easier than I had it," Howard said. "I was thrown in the fire, with Big East play coming off two ACLs and had to run the show. I think they respect me as a person and as a leader."
His biggest improvements this year have been in shooting, but Howard's pride is in making other players better.
"Everybody wants to be a combo. The greats are guys who get people involved," said Howard, who grew up trying to play like Mark Jackson and lists his favorite NBA players as point guards such as Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Steve Nash. "To try to get to the next level, whether it's overseas or in the NBA, there's always a Kobe on a team, a guy who can score. You have to learn what can separate you and what you can do well."
Howard said he's excited about what Crater will add.
"I'm the most excited about him coming," Howard said. "I can't wait to have him on this team and able to play. Not only will it help us, it'll get us a lot quicker. Adding him to the puzzle, that's just going to take us up another level."
USF has a young team still lacking depth until Crater arrives, as well as sophomore forward Gus Gilchrist, due back in mid January from a severely sprained ankle. But for the first time since the Bulls joined the Big East, there is excitement and muted optimism about making the postseason, if only the NIT. USF is 11-57 in four Big East seasons, but Howard is setting his sights high for the next 18 games.
"Let's try to finish .500 or better in the second half of the season," Howard said. "That's a good thing to leave my mark on this program. … I've always labeled myself a winner, my whole life. I've been through a lot of things here that molded me into the person I am today. I've learned from a lot of that."