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Decision on McCullum not easy

Should coach Robert McCullum be fired or should he be brought back for another season?

That’s a tough call to make.

Now I understand this is a lot of rambling that doesn’t make sense, so let me clear things up.

McCullum is a great guy, but he isn’t a good recruiter.

USF is in its second year in the Big East, arguably the best conference in men’s college basketball, but this year’s team was good enough to reach the Big East Tournament, even though it didn’t.

McCullum’s team showed little improvement from last season – five more wins in 2007 than in 2006 – but the Bulls were once again hit with the injury bug.

Coach Robert McCullum’s overall record in his four seasons at USF is 84-120. ORACLE PHOTO/JOSE LOPEZ JR.

After last season’s miserable 7-22 season, athletic director Doug Woolard said there must be significant improvement this season for McCullum to keep his job. Five wins better overall and two wins in the Big East is hardly a significant improvement.

“I think the word significant in itself is a relative term, so how one person defines significant can differ from another,” McCullum said during the post-game press conference following his team’s 77-72 loss to Providence. “Obviously, it’s not my decision to make.”

USF had three players average in double figures in scoring this season – Melvin Buckley, McHugh Mattis and Kendrell Gransberry. Solomon Bozeman averaged just under 10 points per game (9.6 ppg) as a freshman. This year’s team had the talent and experience to make the Big East Tournament.

“It’s a big frustration not to be going to the Big East Tournament because it comes down to a play here and a play there,” Buckley said. “It’s tough because we look back and see we could have done this and could have done that.”

Chris Howard, who had a redshirt year last season after a season-ending knee injury, started the season on the bench. Forward Zaronn Cann also started the season on the bench with an injury, and Aris Williams was sidelined with a knee injury.

So did the Bulls miss the Big East Tournament because of early season injuries, or because of McCullum’s misguidance?

“It was a goal of ours to make it (to the Big East Tournament), but we fell short,” McCullum said. “We’ve dealt with so many obstacles or injuries or whatever you want to call them. I just tried to ignore them because you get to the point where you are asking ‘What can happen next?”

The Bulls have shown that it has the talent to run with the powers in the Big East, upsetting then-No. 21 Notre Dame and suffering a loss to then-No. 15 Marquette on a last second layup.

With Gransberry returning, the Bulls have a big piece in the middle to build around.But what players will be built around Gransberry to make a push at the Big East Tournament in 2008? Can the Bulls even win a conference road game?

The loss of Buckley and Mattis is big, and there’s no one on the radar that can make up for that experience or play on the court. Howard has struggled running the offense at point guard, and Bozeman’s consistency is questionable heading into the offseason.

Jesus Verdejo and Amu Saaka have seen scarce minutes off the bench for most of the season. With Dante Curry and Aaron Holmes, the Bulls will have enough shooters, but they are all unproven players.

McCullum has never been known for his recruiting talent, and the list of 2008 recruits is small and unimpressive so far. If the Bulls are going to make any noise in the Big East, USF needs to bring in some top-level talent that can play in this conference right away.

Fans, however, need to understand that USF came to the Big East to reap the benefits in football, not in basketball. Conference USA, which is where the Bulls came from, will never compare to the monster that is Big East basketball.

To expect the Bulls to make the Big East Tournament in only their second season in the conference is wishful thinking. McCullum has seen improvement in his team this season and is looking to learn a lesson from Providence on Wednesday night.

Providence failed to make the Big East Tournament last season, starting a junior center and four freshmen. This season, however, the Friars have an 8-7 record in conference play and have a spot in the tournament.

“Last year, Providence was a team that didn’t make the Big East Tournament,” McCullum said. “Look at the improvement from them from one year to the next, so I definitely think it is doable for us.”

Gransberry, a junior center, will return next season along with freshmen Saaka, Howard, Bozeman and Cann. This could be a sign of future things for the Bulls or just another season watching the Big East Tournament.

“Those guys have great senior leadership, and they went through there ups and downs last year,” Gransberry said. “So hopefully we can learn from what they did and come out successful next year and make the Big East Tournament.”

So, fire coach McCullum or bring him back for one more year?

This call is a tough one.