TAMPA — Basketball players talk about getting into such a comfort zone that even with a big crowd, it feels like they're the only one in the gym.
Chris Howard knows the feeling well.
Ask USF's point guard where the light switch is for the Sun Dome, and he motions across the court to one corner, where he has grown used to entering the arena late at night, sometimes midnight, getting in extra work on his shots.
His daily quota: 300 shots. He might do 280 one day, but he will make it up with 320 the next. The 6-foot-3 junior has done it enough that he's starting to hit big shots during normal operating hours.
"Getting in here late, finding a rhythm, it can really help," Howard said before practice Tuesday. "I have to take shots to help this team win. If I don't, my guy's going to sag in the lane or make sure Dominique (Jones, guard) doesn't score. I have to keep defenses honest and knock down open shots."
Howard, benched last month as he went 3-for-16 over six games, has found his rhythm, averaging 8.7 points and 5.0 assists in Big East play since returning to the starting lineup. Going back to last season, he had gone 15 straight Big East games without scoring in double figures; now he's done it three times in the past four games.
The Bulls have two wins and two close losses early in conference play going into today's home game against No. 20 Villanova, and Howard has helped get his team into a rhythm as well.
"I think we're kind of jelling," he said. "Other guys are grasping their roles, seeing what's going on. … They've got to learn how to play with you, and you've got to learn how to play with them. You continue to grow and push forward."
Two weeks ago in a rare Big East road win at DePaul, Howard had 10 assists and zero turnovers, his best differential in three seasons at USF. In conference play, he has 30 assists against nine turnovers, and he's hitting 46 percent of his shots from the field.
"I really admire Chris Howard," Blue Demons coach Jerry Wainwright said. "He's got a great feel for leading his team. He is a true point guard and really gives great direction."
Coach Stan Heath said he sees that even when Howard doesn't have the ball. Howard is still talking to USF's younger players, motioning them to where they're supposed to be.
"The thing I talk to Chris about more than anything is being the smartest player on the court, not worrying so much about numbers as doing little things that help give your team direction out there," Heath said. "He's making good decisions out there with the ball; he's more relaxed shooting open shots. He's definitely in a better rhythm than he was early in the season."
USF's depth has been sapped in the past month, with guard Mike Mercer and center B.J. Ajayi lost for the season with knee injuries. It puts even more pressure on the few veterans to help get the most out of four freshmen.
"When you're a point guard, a lot of people think scoring is the way to get to the next level," said Howard, 22. "You reach a certain level, and you start understanding that running your team, getting the right guys the ball, knocking down open shots, those things can get you to the next level if you master them."