The men’s basketball team hopes to capture its first conference win this season in tonight’s Big East home opener against Louisville, but that’s not the only first USF wants to see.
Coach Robert McCullum and the Bulls hope it will also be the debut of top prospect Chris Howard – if his doctor clears him to play.
Howard, a redshirt freshman from Lorton, Va., has been considered one of USF’s best players since joining the team in 2005. However, he hasn’t played in a game yet due to multiple anterior cruciate ligament injuries suffered last preseason and again in June.
The 6-foot-3 guard has spent the past three weeks practicing with the Bulls’ starters, and if all goes well at his doctor’s appointment this afternoon, Howard will finally join his teammates in a game.
“It’ll be like a dream come true,” Howard said after practice Tuesday. “I’ve always wanted to play Division-I basketball, and if I get cleared, (tonight) will be my first time.”
Howard likely would’ve started at guard as a true freshman last season, and he certainly would’ve started the first 16 games this season if he hadn’t torn his ACL.
With Howard unable to play, former walk-on Chris Capko started 23 games last season and seven games this season. However, Capko injured his ankle in USF’s loss to UNLV on Dec. 19, so their roles will reverse as Capko will now watch Howard from the bench.
“We’re looking forward to him playing,” Capko said. “None of us have really had the opportunity full length to play with him, so we’re anxious to see what he can do and the depth that he brings to our team.”
Capko, one of five seniors and a team leader, praised Howard for his hard work while trying to get healthy since his initial injury more than a year ago.
Capko said he is looking forward to seeing Howard lace up for his first college game, whether it is tonight or in the near future.
“(Going through the injuries has) shown us a lot about him as a person,” Capko said. “The guy has been through two ACL tears in a year and a half, but he’s been at practice. He’s just been positive and kept working, and you’re happy to see him finally get an opportunity to play.”
Although he’s confident that he’ll be cleared to play, it will come down to how well he does during tests at his doctor’s appointment at 1:45 in Gainesville.
If his doctor clears Howard, he won’t immediately have a starting role, but after spending so many games – and losses – on the bench, any playing time will be appreciated.
“It’s been very hard because we’ve had our ups and downs, but I still have my four years (of eligibility), so that’s a lot of basketball to be played,” Howard said. “I just want to come in and help the team, and hopefully we can grab a win.”
Despite his appointment being more than five hours from game time and 126 miles from the Sun Dome, McCullum isn’t concerned about his game plan because Howard is familiar with USF’s plays.
“We won’t find out until 3 or 3:30, but that won’t be an issue in terms of time because he knows everything that we’re doing anyway,” McCullum said. “If he can play, the doctor will give us guidelines in terms of how much, but if we get 20 minutes from him a game for the rest of the year, that’ll be awesome just because of the presence he gives us.”