Dons look to rebound

After a disappointing 13-18 season, marked dolefully by senior guard Armondo Surratt’s ailments and the academic uncertainty of talented yet mercurial swingman Antonio Kellogg, there was hope entering this season that injuries and grade problems would be a remnant of the past for the USF men’s basketball team.

Unfortunately for the Dons, that rosy scenario will not be a reality.

Forward Jay Watkins, coming off a solid 2006-07 campaign in which he was named to the West Coast Conference All-Freshman team, will miss the first semester because of academic ineligibility, senior forward Vince Polakovic’s eligibility hasn’t been cleared up and Jared Casey, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center expected to play a large role, has been hampered with shoulder injuries that leaves his playing status day-to-day.

Already reeling from the departures of Surratt, Kellogg (who left to pursue a pro career overseas) and forward Alan Wiggins Jr., the Dons were dealt another cruel blow in July when forward Wendell McKines, one of the Bay Area’s top recruits, was unable to gain eligibility despite signing a letter of intent to play for coach Jessie Evans.

Making matters even more difficult is a daunting nonconference schedule, which starts today when the Dons travel to Sooners country to take on Big 12 Conference power Oklahoma in the opening round of 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, which benefits Coaches vs. Cancer.

Still, there is reason for optimism on the Hilltop, coinciding notably with the arrival of high-flying newcomer Dior Lowhorn, a 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore who sat out last season as a transfer student from Texas Tech. A former Riordan High School star who also played at Berkeley High, Lowhorn instantly becomes the Dons’ top scoring threat, as evidenced in his exhibition debut Saturday against Sonoma State. In his first live action in more than a year, Lowhorn dropped 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the Dons’ 71-66 victory.

“It’s nice to get back on the court, but I can’t let my emotions get the best of me,” said Lowhorn, who averaged 7.2 points per game for coach Bobby Knight and the Red Raiders in the 2005-06 season. “It’s going to be a long season, and I have make sure I keep everything in check.”

The Dons also welcome back starting guard Manny Quezada, who averaged 13.5 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists per game in his first season at USF after transferring from Rutgers. With the departures of Surratt and Kellogg, the 6-foot-2 junior point guard will be the undisputed leader of the Dons’ backcourt.

“I’m excited to get going,” said Quezada, who scored 27 points against Sonoma State. “I know I have the experience and I’m looking forward to leading this team. I think we’ve got a lot of talent and this year I’m seeing a lot more chemistry with all the guys.”

Finding a third scoring option to complement Quezada and Lowhorn will be the most pressing concern. Candidates include senior forwards Danny Cavic (5.4 points per game) and Polakovic (3.8 ppg), whenever he becomes eligible.

“We need someone to take the focus off Manny and I,” Lowhorn said. “Every team does their homework at this level, so they’ll be prepared for us if there are only two guys on the team scoring. We need to have a balanced attack.”

Evans, in his fourth season with the Dons, is willing to be patient as his young players develop a rapport for one another.

“I’m not going to be concerned immediately with our record,” Evans said. “What I’m really going to notice is if we’re getting better each game. Our main goal is to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year and, if we’re doing that, I think we’ll be a very competitive team.”

GAME DAY

USF (0-0) vs. Oklahoma (0-0)

WHEN: Today, 5 p.m.

WHERE: Lloyd Noble Center , Norman, OK

TV: None

RADIO: KQKE (960 AM)

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