The first time USF men's basketball coach Stan Heath met Dominique Jones after taking over the Bulls three years ago, their conversation in Jones' hometown of Lake Wales quickly turned to Jones and his goal of making it to the NBA.
Following a breakout junior season, Jones informed Heath on Saturday that he was skipping his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
"I've been a guy doing everything I can to help him reach that goal,'' Heath said Tuesday. "I just didn't know it was going to happen this fast.''
Jones left for Atlanta on Tuesday to begin intense sessions with a personal trainer in preparation for pre-draft camps. Meanwhile, Heath spent much of Tuesday with his cell phone glued to his ear preparing for the start of the National Letter of Intent signing period. The signing period starts Wednesday and runs to May 19.
The biggest challenge facing Heath: How to replace Jones and his 21.4 points per game.
"Obviously our perimeter is our biggest void,'' Heath said. "It would be really nice to find some guys who can give us immediate help.''
Due to NCAA rules, Heath is not allowed to discuss potential recruits until they have officially signed. However, two players who have verbally committed to USF could provide the help Heath is seeking.
Tallahassee Community College guard Hugh Robertson verbally committed to the Bulls in February. A 6-foot-5, 195-pound shooting guard, Robertson averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds to help lead the Eagles to the Florida Community College Association championship game. At TCC, he played with Arkansas commit Marvell Waithe and Florida State commit Bernard James.
"He's just one of those natural athletic guys who can influence a game by his athleticism,'' TCC coach Eddie Barnes said. "We talk about freak athletes, and he's right there. He doesn't know how high he can go or how fast he can go.
"I think Hugh is ready to turn the corner. He's bringing in a pretty good package as a player.''
Another shooting guard who USF has targeted is Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College's Jowanza Poland, a 6-4, 195-pound scorer who averaged 13.5 points as a freshman at Cowley (Kan.) College. Poland was forced to sit out last season after being denied his release from Cowley to transfer to Hutchinson when his coach at Cowley, Steve Eck, left for Hutchinson.
Eck said Tuesday that Poland has not made his intentions known to him and that he could still return to play at Hutchinson if he fails to gain admission to a four-year school.
USF signed two players during November's early signing period: 6-foot-10 center Waverly Austin of Martinsville (Va.) Heat Academy, and point guard LaVonte Dority of Chicago's Foreman High.
Heath also has received a verbal commitment from point guard Shedrick Haynes, a former Palmetto High football and basketball standout. Haynes, who has a 42-inch vertical leap, is expected to challenge to replace Chris Howard as the Bulls' starting point guard next season.
If Haynes, Poland and Robertson all sign with the Bulls, that would leave Heath with one remaining scholarship in the wake of Jones' departure. Virginia prep center DeVante Gardner appears the leading candidate to fill that spot, though Gardner is reportedly entertaining other offers.
The Bulls lose three starters from last year's team in Jones, Howard and forward Mike Mercer, and reserve center Alex Rivas won't be back from a team that won 20 games (20-13) for only the third time in the program's 39-year history.
Still, Heath is optimistic about the future, one that will include Kansas State transfer Ron Anderson after the 6-foot-8, 255-pound forward sat out last season.
"I feel good about our recruiting, where we are, the guys we are on,'' Heath said. "I really think that we've laid a strong foundation to be a good basketball team in the future.
"As we got on that run [in the Big East], things improved. Obviously, our winning, our success, had a lot to do with some of the guys we feel good about heading into the signing period.''