Although USF basketball will face an important signing period this spring, next November's class - the first as a full-fledged member of the Big East - could be the one that sets the tone for the Bulls' emergence in the nation's most powerful hoops league.
South Florida has already been connected with high-profile, class of 2006 prospects such as Derrick Caracter and Curtis Kelly, and here's another emerging name to add to that list - Carbondale (Ill.) High School's Manual Cass.
Just prior to the holiday break, USF head coach Robert McCullum visited with Cass at his high school, and that visit made an immediate impact.
"I know it impressed Manual because South Florida was the first program to actually come to our place and talk to him following a game. He'd spoken with other coaches during the summer at events, but Coach McCullum was the first to travel here and sit down with Manual," said Carbondale varsity assistant Michael Butler, who coached Cass as a JV last season. "He had a good talk with Coach McCullum."
Cass is a left-handed 6-foot-7, 205-pound junior center at Carbondale, but Butler said he expects the versatile talent to eventually play a wing forward position in college. Through the early part of the season, Cass is averaging 17.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. His stock began rising during summer camps and has continued its climb thanks to two impressive early-season efforts. In early December, he scored 20 points in an overtime win against nationally-ranked Memphis White Station. A week later, Cass scored 22 versus Lynwood (Calif.), including a thunderous dunk over UNLV signee Davon Jefferson.
"He's a big kid who's filled out with muscle mass. He's learning to be a physical player, but his real strength is his quickness. That's why I think he'll be an athletic wing player at the next level. He also has a solid 15-foot jumper," Butler said. "And I think he's probably still growing. He may end up at 6-8 or 6-9."
In addition to USF, Cass has early interest from Purdue, Wisconsin, Saint Louis and an offer from hometown Southern Illinois. Butler said Matt Painter, who will take over as head coach at Purdue next season, is scheduled to make a school visit next Thursday.
Cass also plays for the state's elite AAU team, the Illinois Warriors, which lists current Bull Melvin Buckley among its alumni.
"Manual has dedicated himself to hoops and now, with this attention from colleges, he's realizing he needs to have the same focus in the classroom and he's doing that. He's going to take the ACT early (Feb. 7)," Butler said.
"I don't think it would be a stretch to expect to see him (in Tampa) for a visit at some point. I've been pushing him that way. What's not to like about a trip to South Florida?"