TAMPA — Of the four seniors playing in their final home game today, point guard Chris Howard has been at USF the longest, having signed with the Bulls when they were still in Conference USA. Then he endured an 11-57 league record in their first four seasons in the Big East.
To see his team 8-9 in the Big East, with an 18-11 overall record and in line for postseason play, Howard can appreciate just how far USF has come in his five years.
"My last game in the Sun Dome, that holds a lot of weight," said Howard, a four-year starter who needs 11 assists to move into fourth on the Bulls' all-time list. "This whole roller coaster that I've been through … it's been a great experience for me. It's molded me to the person I am today."
Howard and his fellow seniors will be recognized today, but their goal is to extend their playing careers as much as possible, potentially with USF's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years. To do that, the Bulls must beat Connecticut today and reach the quarterfinals of next week's Big East tournament, coach Stan Heath said.
Heath has overseen a remarkable turnaround this season as the Bulls have become a competitive team in perhaps the nation's deepest, toughest conference. Underclassmen such as junior Dominique Jones and sophomore Augustus Gilchrist have played major roles, but Heath said his seniors, especially Howard and guard Mike Mercer, have been a key part of that rise.
"They've weathered a lot of storms, come through some tough times," Heath said. "They've stayed strong. They're great character guys. You look at a guy like Chris Howard, who's been here the most. He'll be remembered and never forgotten for all he's done here."
Mercer has made the most of a second chance from Heath after being dismissed from the team last season, and he has played his best down the stretch, averaging 13.4 points in USF's past five games. Mercer had better numbers his first two seasons while at Georgia but said this season is much more memorable for what the Bulls have been able to accomplish.
"At this point last year, we didn't have big games at the end of the season," Mercer said. "It's fun to have a big game in March. … What we did was special. We're the first (USF) team to win eight Big East games, and we want the next teams to grow on what we've done. … I've felt like I'm helping my team win, and that's more special to me than anything I ever did at Georgia."
Two unsung players will play their final home games, too: center Alex Rivas, who has played sparingly after offseason surgery to place steel rods in his lower legs, and walk-on guard Ryan Kardok. Rivas scored only 10 points in limited action, but Heath said his toughness has been the model for teammates.
"I don't know what it's like to put rods in my legs or have it done twice, but to see him the way he is right now, he's happy-go-lucky and part of the fight," Heath said. "He'll give one minute, two minutes, 20 minutes, no minutes, he's going to do whatever he can to help his team."
Kardok, who joined the team last year after playing at Broward Community College, has played a large role during the season. He has logged 143 minutes (more than any of three freshman guards on scholarship) and scored 18 points in becoming a fan favorite. Kardok said he hasn't been surprised by the team's progress this season.
"I did think before the season we were possible (for) an NCAA Tournament bid. I was that confident in our team," Kardok said.
The regular season ends today with far more fanfare than in any season since 2002, the last time the Bulls made the postseason. Connecticut, like USF, is battling for a shot at the NCAAs, but Heath said his team is in position to send its seniors out on a high note.
"It's a big game, and it's great to be playing in big games this time of year," Heath said. "We haven't been here before. It's something you always want to be a part of, and we'll have some more big games in the future, even this season."