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Returning seniors set to take over men’s team

Last season’s inaugural Big East campaign was one to forget for fans of the USF men’s basketball team.

But as bad as it was with 17 straight losses and a last-place conference finish, USF still had one of the highest scorers and one of the best rebounders in the Big East, both of whom have moved on from college basketball.

Looking to improve on last year’s 1-15 conference record, the Bulls will be without center Solomon Jones (9.8 rebounds per game) and guard James Holmes (16.6 points per game), last year’s primary producers.

Returning seniors Melvin Buckley and McHugh Mattis finished the 2005-06 season third and fourth, respectively, behind Holmes and Jones in points per game. Forward Buckley started all 29 games, while forward Mattis started 22.

Coach Robert McCullum expects big things from Buckley and Mattis, but the fourth-year coach isn’t going to just hand over the leadership roles Jones and Holmes left behind.

“They have to earn that (by) winning the confidence of the teammates (and) of our coaching staff,” McCullum said. “You need to be able to look at your team and say, ‘We know we’ve got a guy or two that we have to have a basket, we have to have a big rebound, we’ve got to get a big stop.’ We’ve got a guy or two that can get that for us when we have to have it, and that’s a lot easier said than done.”

Jones, now playing with the Atlanta Hawks, was a dominating inside presence last year. Along with scoring 13.6 points per game, Jones finished his senior season with 9.8 rebounds a game.

With Jones gone, LSU transfer Kentrell Gransberry is the only player on the roster listed as a center, but he isn’t eligible to play until mid-December. Until Gransberry is able to play, Melvyn Richardson and Aris Williams are likely to rotate between forward and center.

Although he’s not a center, Mattis finished last season behind Jones with 7.2 rebounds per game.

“We don’t have a player that will give us what Solomon Jones did,” McCullum said. “Kentrell Gransberry could have similar rebounding numbers, but yet, not the shot-blocking presence, nor is he as skilled to score with his back to the basket as Solomon Jones.

“We’re just hopeful that by committee, the combination of our inside players can kind of provide the scoring that he gave us.”

The Bulls struggled from the perimeter last season, finishing 14th in the Big East with 146 three-pointers. Buckley led USF with 71 field goals from beyond the arc, but with Holmes and Collin Dennis (transferred) gone, he’s the only returning player from last season to make a three-pointer.

Buckley’s confidence level is at an all-time high, and he’s already on his way to leading the Bulls in scoring after putting up a career-high 29 points in USF’s 77-61 opening-night win against Buffalo on Monday. But he’s approaching this season as a chance to leave college basketball with a bang rather than as his time to replace Jones and Holmes.

“I look at it from the standpoint (that) this is my last year,” Buckley said. “I just want to play as hard as I can and leave people with a sense that I came out – Melvin Buckley played hard and that the team in general was successful.”