Big things are expected from Buckley, Sills and Richardson -- three likely starters. Buckley showed athleticism and offensive flashes at Purdue. Sills, a flashy point guard, has a huge upside as a ball-handler and scorer. Richardson shot 61 percent from the floor in junior college. Down the line, coaches have high hopes for Cann, a local prep star who recovered from a serious knee injury he suffered in January 2004.
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Robert McCullum's two-season tenure at South Florida has not been smooth. With his lineup often diminished by injuries, illness and disciplinary matters, the Bulls have gone 6-32 in conference play.
But there was an unexpected surge last season. The Bulls surprised Charlotte in their final regular-season game and then shocked Cincinnati in the Conference USA Tournament quarterfinals. South Florida, which hadn't defeated a top 25 team since 1992, suddenly had two milestone wins in less than a week.
South Florida's modest progress could be negated by its ascension into the Big East, which even the tradition-rich programs are approaching with trepidation. "It's a great challenge," McCullum says. "But a great challenge also gives you a great opportunity."
McCullum remains convinced about South Florida's potential, particularly now, when the Bulls can tap into the Northeast's recruiting hotbeds. Still, that adds no immediate optimism. The Bulls must replace three starters while jumping to an unprecedented level of competition.
The Bulls lost their top scorer and rebounder, Terrence Leather. Replacing his skills is a job that can't be filled by one player alone.
South Florida's offense may need to be carried by junior Melvin Buckley, a transfer from Purdue. Buckley excels from the perimeter and operates well in transition. "He can score and he can finish," McCullum says. Buckley never found a full-time role at Purdue but opened plenty of eyes with a career-high 20 points against LSU in the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Defensively, another newcomer, junior college transfer Melvyn Richardson, should add needed beef to the interior. The Bulls also need senior center Solomon Jones to continue his maturation. Jones developed into one of C-USA's top shot-blockers but needs to assert himself more often on the glass.
Freshman Zaronn Cann may not contribute immediately, but McCullum loves his potential.
Say this about David Sills: His nickname -- The Enigma -- is fitting. Sills, a New York playground legend, attended four high schools and three junior colleges. At 22, he has two seasons of eligibility remaining. But he's anxious to make up for lost time. With South Florida's Big East ties swinging his decision, Sills loves the possibility of immediate contributions from the point guard slot. "He will be a fan favorite," McCullum predicts. With a high-energy, charismatic approach, Sills brings plenty of big-city attitude.
The Bulls have options at shooting guard, and the most attractive possibility looks to be sophomore Collin Dennis. His 25-point outburst against UAB put him into the starting lineup late into the season. With more consistent shooting from long range, Dennis might find himself as one of the team's top scoring threats.
Senior James Holmes had his moments, making 16-of-20 field goal attempts during an early-season stretch, but he probably will contribute off the bench. Junior swingman Marius Prekevicius, the team's most effective 3-point shooter, grew into his role as an offensive firestarter, but he has some weaknesses on defense.
The Bulls' backcourt received a major blow just prior to last season when the team disclosed Bradley Mosley was battling kidney cancer. Mosley, the only player to start each game in 2003-04, missed the entire year. He's expected to continue treatment and not play this season.
South Florida was encouraged by its finish last season. But it also showed how far the bar had been lowered for this program. Making a conference tournament semifinal is hardly reason for a parade. Now the Bulls must replace their three best players, along with jumping into the nation's most formidable basketball league.
Don't expect much from South Florida this season. The mountain is too steep. And there just isn't much experience; only Holmes has played with the program for two seasons. But there's something to sell here, and if McCullum's recruiting pays off, the Bulls should improve in time.
In the Big East, though, steady improvement may not be enough for contention.