Topsy-turvy careers end with success

The long, tumultuous careers seniors Chris Howard and Mike Mercer have had are winding down – and neither could have asked for a better senior season. They won’t forget the challenges along the way, either.

Howard and Mercer have had to deal with adversity – in similar and in differing situations – and have overcome it to be key pieces in one of USF’s best seasons in quite some time. Both will play their final regular-season game in USF uniforms, when the Bulls (18-11, 8-9) host Connecticut (17-12, 7-9) on Saturday at 2 p.m.

“It’s been an up-and-down season for me,” Mercer said. “I’m still recovering from injuries (that happened) last year. I finally feel like I’m comfortable playing. It’s been a good season for me and we’re having a good year. It’s going to be one of those memories I take with me for a very long time.”

Mercer, who has had two ACL injuries in his college career, said it was good to have someone to turn to along the way.

Like Mercer, Howard tore his ACL twice during college – in 2005 and in 2006.

“What’s crazy about that … those were very similar situations,” Mercer said. “He tore his ACL in the same knee and I had two surgeries, too. We can relate. We both just want to go out with a bang.”

Mercer tore his ACL in 2006, while at Georgia, and he suffered a season-ending knee injury four games into his USF career last season. It was then that Mercer turned to Howard for guidance.

“We’ve both been through ups and downs in college basketball,” Howard said. “He’s kind of been like my crutch, and I’ve been like his crutch. He saw I got through the injury and came back fine. When he got injured, I let him know everything would be alright, with him seeing what I was able to do.”

But injuries weren’t the only obstacles each faced. After his second knee injury, Mercer was dismissed from the team in January 2009 after his second arrest in five months – in the midst of becoming a talent for the basketball team.

Mercer, however, fulfilled legal requirements to get his second charge, a drug-related misdemeanor, dropped. He then graduated in August with a criminology degree.

USF coach Stan Heath then reinstated the 6-foot-5 guard from Snellville, Ga., on the grounds that Mercer had demonstrated he understood the expectations in the program, giving his career a second chance.

Mercer, who has started all but two games this season, is averaging 9.4 points per game. He’s averaging 13.4 points in his last five games and is among the Big East leaders in steals.

“Getting a second chance … in life, that’s sometimes all (that) people need,” Howard said of Mercer. “He’s been playing great. His defense, his athleticism is something we need on the team. He’s a part of the success we’re having here. It’s not a one-man show, and he’s having a great senior year. I’m proud to have him on the team.”

Heath said Mercer may have been unfairly labeled when he came to USF from Georgia, where he had been dismissed for being a “disruption to the team.”

“I thought last year he tried to come out and be too aggressive and make a name for himself right away,” Heath said before the season. “This year, I see him more deferent … When Mike came here, I don’t think he had baggage. If you look at why he came here … (Georgia’s) rules were very unique … He never missed class, had a high grade-point average. I don’t want to paint the picture that he came here with problems because he didn’t.”

Howard has had his own misfortunes off the court, but these were out of his control.

Howard’s father, Edward, died from a heart ailment in spring 2007, right as Howard was on the verge of fully recovering from his second ACL injury.

“Even before I got there, … Chris Howard was going through some hard times not only with the team but even personally,” said Heath, who arrived at USF when Howard was a sophomore. “To see him hang in there and fight and handle all the adversity is special. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do … we’re going to name a special award when we have our banquet – the ‘toughness, adversity award’ or something … Mr. Bull.”

With senior night on the horizon – and center Alex Rivas and guard Ryan Kardok also in their last home regular season game – Howard and Mercer said they have been blessed to be part of one of the best seasons USF has seen in a long time.

“All throughout my life of basketball, my goal was to make history … whatever I touched,” Howard said. “To get this program going in the direction it’s headed and be part of the piece of putting this puzzle together is something I appreciate.”