Team preview: South Florida

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Unless your luggage is lost, the hotel is horrible and the weather is rotten, it's hard to come back from Italy feeling anything else but rejuvenated and optimistic. It's a beautiful country, and the pace of life is perfect for some summer fun. If you happen to be there on a business trip, it still is enjoyable and certainly preferable than spending a week at work in some drab U.S. destination.

When USF returned from its five-game, summer sojourn to Italy, coach Robert McCullum was pleased with his team's progress and positive that the Bulls were on the right track toward becoming competitive in the Big East.

"Some of the players who we think will have different and bigger roles got confidence and game experience," he said.

That's great news. Of course, it comes with a bracing reality check. USF finished 1-15 during its first Big East season, loses its two top scorers from a year ago and already has some injury woes.

Further, McCullum must re-enter the league's fray with a roster that includes six freshmen and a pair of transfers who won't become eligible until December. Topping it all off is point guard Chris Howard's predicament. The red-shirt freshman, who missed all of 2005-06 after tearing his ACL, re-tore the ligament in late June. Though his prognosis is good, the best-case scenario for his return is mid-January. Anybody else think USF's 3-2 record over in Italy will be the last time it sees the north side of .500 for a while?

McCullum isn't blind to his predicament. He understands how hard it is to play in one of the nation's premier conferences with (at least) one hand behind his back. But the lumps USF is likely to absorb are necessary, at least most of them. In order to build a program capable of climbing out of the cellar, McCullum must commit to young players, or else risk building a vagabond team that changes its personality every couple years and never develops continuity. In a way, the move to the Big East was beneficial to the coach. He can now build slowly and without too much pressure, because it's clear USF the program is a long way from replicating the look and results of other Big East clubs.

Not that McCullum is looking to duplicate last year's 1-15 league mark. He believes the newcomers are top-shelf. He expects Howard to return and play a significant role. And he's counting on his holdovers to build on the progress they made during the trip to Italy.

"If we're healthy, I'm optimistic we'll be a lot more competitive," he said.

Hey, it's a start. USF can't expect to come close to the Big East's first division. It also shouldn't be teasing fans with the chance for an early-March trip to New York for the league tournament. Because the conference takes just 12 of its 16 schools to Madison Square Garden, it's unrealistic to think the Bulls will be there. So, USF will take small steps as a program.