With five starters back, USF didn't expect to need much from freshman ChiChi Okpaleke, a Times first-team All-Suncoast player two seasons at Tampa Bay Tech.
They certainly didn't figure they'd need the 5-foot-11 standout at center, figuring Okpaleke's talents are best suited for small forward on the college level.
But when junior center Sharon Cambridgemissed the first month of the season with an ankle injury, coach Jose Fernandez looked to Okpaleke for depth in the post, and that will continue the rest of the season.
With starting center Nalini Miller out at least four weeks with a hamstring injury and Cambridge still not 100 percent, Okpaleke becomes a vital reserve and a key part of the Bulls' run at their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"ChiChi has done a great job and gotten better game by game," Fernandez said Monday. "She's really a perimeter player, but the more minutes she has played, she has continued to improve."
Okpaleke played sparingly in the early season, making only one field goal in her first nine games She had 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting against Southern, and 10 against William & Mary.
Those were easy victories against lesser opponents. But when USF needed her Sunday against Cincinnati, she stepped up. Okpaleke played 19 minutes, the same as Cambridge, and contributed eight points and four rebounds.
The Bulls (12-4, 2-0 in Conference USA) will need those kinds of games from Okpaleke until Miller returns, starting this weekend on the road against two of C-USA's other 2-0 teams, Texas Christian and Houston.
ON THE MEND: East Bay's J.B. Garris played most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The freshman receiver, who suffered the injury against South Carolina and finished the season with nine catches for 129 yards, had surgery Dec. 8 and will miss spring practice.
"His rehab is going well, and he's back up and running again," his father, J.B. Garris Sr., said Tuesday. "He'll be back playing in time for fall ball."
RECRUITING UPDATE: Carlton Hill, the Monticello quarterback who committed to USF in August, then backed off in November and was strongly considering Miami, now looks to be close to committing to the Bulls again.
"He's definitely leaning toward South Florida," Jefferson County coach Jeff Schaum said Tuesday. "He's heard a lot of things from a lot of schools, but USF has been steady in telling him the same things."
Hill will make an official visit to USF on Jan. 21 with his mother, then likely choose between the Bulls and Hurricanes. Both have made scholarship offers.
LOCALS: USF is one of three schools still in contention for Armwood running back Demetrius McCray, who will be part of a key recruiting weekend this weekend. McCray is slated to visit New Mexico on Jan. 21 and Indiana on Jan. 28.
Armwood defensive back R.J. Anderson, who committed to USF last summer, is a coveted baseball prospect, tabbed by Baseball America as the No. 86 high school prospect in the country his senior season. Armwood coach Sean Callahan said Anderson is considering playing pro baseball if he's drafted in the top three rounds, but coach Jim Leavitt's experience as a two-sport star (he was the 1976 Big 8 batting champion at Missouri) could help him choose the Bulls.
SPECIAL AGENT: Former USF offensive linemen Alex Herron, Derrick Sarosi and Levi Newton, who combined for 119 starts with the Bulls, have all signed with agent Mark Lepselter of New Jersey-based MJ Sports Management.
Times staff writer Greg Auman covers USF athletics. Reach him at (813) 226-3346 or aumansptimes.com.