A banner day for Howard

There could have been a marquee for his first collegiate game.

A sign, billboard or banner as large as the one that hangs on Madison Square Garden probably could have sufficed.

Chris Howard and his ever-temperamental knees probably warranted one.

The guard – widely considered one of USF’s best players even though he had never stepped on the court during regulation – finally got his chance.

It may have not been the best performance of the year or, well, night for USF, but it’s certainly better than playing the role of cheerleader he’d been stuck with for the past year and a half.

“It was a long (wait),” said Howard, who was held scoreless. “This is just an injury that I would wish on no one because (it takes) so long (to rehab). Watching your teammates practice and play, it plays with your mind – with (the injury), you have to stay focused (on getting back).”

But if Howard is as good as the scouting Web sites or newspapers said he was in high school, than he’s the guy to build the team around.

And perhaps Howard wasn’t the most intriguing story on the floor during Tuesday’s 81-55 loss to Louisville. There was much more to focus on out there, such as the Bulls’ constant struggles or their seemingly out-of-sync play. Even how Louisville, on a down year with an uncanny five losses, still outplayed USF.

Yeah, yeah, all of that other stuff was there, and it probably will be all season until the team finds chemistry among three transfers (Kentrell Gransberry, Melvin Buckley, Jesus Verdejo), two true freshman (Amu Saaka, Solomon Bozeman) and the highly anticipated Howard.

Howard, now available, is your go-to guy. Now comes the time when you get that knee as if it was brand new, as if it had never been touched by a scalpel. He needs to play like Chris Capko did last year. No, not the lack of points, but 38 minutes a game.

The points will come. He averaged 17 points per game back home in Virginia. They’ll come considering he had just one measly shot against Louisville, and that didn’t come until the second half. All Howard had was five assists, and McCullum said he was “encouraged” to find Howard’s long-awaited return “a bright spot” in Tuesday’s loss.

Did he drag behind some, for a guard?A couple of times.

Did he wince a few times from lingering pain?

Maybe a little.

But Tuesday night was still the start. He’s got three and a half more years – cross your fingers on that knee – to prove that he was worth the wait.

“(The fans) showed a lot of support,” Howard said. “Gave me a standing ovation, clapped, whatever, but I thought winning the game should have been more important to them.”

Howard said he spent about six hours in the car Wednesday on a trip to Gainesville and back to see his doctor, who cleared him to play. A player more anticipated than Matt Grothe’s sophomore campaign hit the court at 13 minutes, 40 seconds in the first half. His first foul came 36 seconds later. His first assist at 11:40.

Then he accidentally stepped out of bounds, a feeble call by the refs who were about as popular as Mark McGuire has been in the past few days.

And since Howard hasn’t played in a few years, he said after the game that he’s been ready to go for quite some time. He said he didn’t have shell shock out on the floor, but added “it’s going to take time. I have to give an extra 120 percent, but it’ll take time. I haven’t played in a while.”

He’s right, it will – but he’s not worried about being 100 percent better.

He’s worried about becoming a leader, about scoring points, about doing what he was brought to USF to do: play basketball.

And Tuesday, students could see that soon, those elements will shine through, and in the end, this guy who has just 20 minutes of playing time in two years will also stay humble to a team that needs him more than he needs his team.

“It wasn’t about Chris Howard today,” Howard said. “It was about the University of South Florida.”

Put that on a marquee.