USF hoops: Recapping the non-conference season

USF junior Kitija Laksa leads the nation with 57 3-pointers. (Times file photo)
USF junior Kitija Laksa leads the nation with 57 3-pointers. (Times file photo)

The USF basketball non-conference slate ended Thursday in bittersweet fashion for the Bulls, with the men topping Charlotte at home and the women falling to Michigan State in New Orleans.

Our nutshell assessment to this point: The men (7-6) might have over-achieved, and the women (10-3) might have achieved the over (that is, if you pegged them for eight or nine wins during their merciless non-conference slate).

Already, their young seasons have featured doubleheaders and double-doubles, comebacks and clunkers, one dazzlingn NCAA record and one bewildering NCAA ruling.

Here's a look at some of the breathtaking and frustrating moments to this point, and our projection going forward.

Unconscious, and unprecedented
Without question, the singular highlight of the young season to this point was 6-foot junior Kitija Laksa setting an NCAA record (for all divisions) with 11 consecutive 3-pointers in the Bulls women's 108-48 rout of Southern University on Dec. 15. Laksa missed her first trey of the night, and didn't miss again.

"Tonight for me, it was just (that) my teammates found me," said Laksa, who finished with a career-best 40 points. "They made the extra pass, they found me, they were looking for me, and I just had to make the shots."

A baby step (but a breakthrough)
With little fanfare, the men delivered a tangible sign of progress with Thursday night's 78-76 home victory against Charlotte.

The triumph was USF's third in a row, giving the program its first three-game win streak since November 2014. Additionally, USF is 7-6 for the first time since early in the 2013-14 season, when Stan Heath was still coach.

We've suggested more than once if Coach Brian Gregory — who quickly had to fill nine scholarships upon his March hiring — can reach double-digit victories with this club, the school should erect a statue of him. Or at the least, Bulls super fan Johnny G. Lyon should immortalize him with a song.

Women's MVP (so far)
Hard to argue with Laksa, who leads the nation in 3-pointers (57), ranks sixth in scoring (22.8 ppg) and is shooting nearly 45 percent from long range (57-of-128).

Men's MVP (so far)
We're gonna go with graduate transfer PG Stephan Jiggetts, who has brought stability to a position that has had none since Anthony Collins bolted more than two years ago. Jiggetts is averaging 12.5 points, but more importantly, owns an assist-turnover ration of nearly 2-to-1, and has made 25 of 27 free throws.

Controversy, Part I
A bout with the flu left women's coach Jose Fernandez bench-ridden for nearly all of two recent games (both wins), but a player-eligibility issue brought on another sort of sick feeling that just might linger until March.

Fernandez was — and is — bitter over the fact his prized transfer, 6-foot-2 redshirt sophomore Alyssa Rader, wasn't cleared to play in time for a critical Dec. 9 game at Oklahoma.

As a midyear transfer, Rader was ineligible for the first semester per NCAA guidelines. But USF's fall semester ended two days before the Oklahoma game. Still, Rader didn't make the trip, and the Bulls — already shorthanded in the frontcourt — lost 79-74.

"The first allowable game that you're allowed to play is after final exams, the day right after finals. So that didn't happen for us," Fernandez said a few days later. "We just have a different way of doing things than other institutions, and that's all I can say."

USF's longstanding policy — for all sports — is to keep a transfer player sidelined until semester grades are certified, which may not necessarily occur the day after final exams. Rader made her USF debut in the Bulls' next game, a 108-48 romp of Southern University on Dec. 15.

But based on the immediate eligibility of other prominent midyear transfers, Fernandez's claim has merit.

Finals at Kansas ended Dec. 15, but SF Sam Cunliffe — a midyear transfer from Arizona — played two minutes in the Jayhawk men's 73-72 win the next day at Nebraska. At Dayton, 6-foot-1 Butler transfer Brittany Ward played 17 minutes in the Flyer women's 82-54 win Dec. 17 against James Madison, their first contest after finals ended two days previously.

And Marquette men's 6-11, 250-pound C Harry Froling — an SMU transfer — made a three-minute cameo in last Monday's game against Northern Illinois, two days after the formal end of the school's semester.

So why is Rader's postponed debut a big deal? The loss to Oklahoma could be the kind that comes back to haunt USF when the NCAA Tournament selection committee convenes.

The Sooners (5-6) embarrassed previously unbeaten New Mexico 105-63 last weekend, and project to finish in the Big 12's upper tier. A win against them could've added sparkle to USF's postseason resume. As it stands, the loss potentially could affect the Bulls' NCAA seeding, perhaps even costing them a shot at hosting an opening weekend.

Which would only serve to perpetuate Fernandez's sick feeling.

Controversy, Part II
Men's coach Brian Gregory struggled to suppress his own lividness earlier this week, when the school announced 6-8 freshman F Alexis Yetna had been declared ineligible this season by the NCAA.

At issue was the fact Yetna, who finished his first semester at USF with a 3.5 GPA, played for a Connecticut prep school last winter, the second year following his high school graduation in France.

The NCAA generally allows students one year after they graduate from high school to enroll in college. If they don't enroll during that year, they may continue competing in their sport, but must stop at the conclusion of the year to preserve their collegiate eligibility.

But Yetna graduated from high school in France in three years instead of four, a mitigating factor that Gregory suggests the NCAA either didn't consider or ignored. His passionate reaction to the ruling can be read here.

Sign that March could be memorable
The No. 22 women admirably survived their daunting non-conference slate with a shortened bench.

G Enna Pehadzic, a former Denmark under-18 national teamer, still is rounding into shape after missing all of last season due to knee surgery. Five-star recruit Silvia Serrat, a 6-1 Spain native, also is expected back at some point following foot surgery.

Additionally, redshirt freshman F Shae Leverett recently battled a nagging shoulder injury. Barring any further complications, Coach Jose Fernandez could brandish a 10-player rotation at some point this winter.

It would represent a glaring contrast to the injury epidemic of last season, when Fernandez used only six players in the Bulls' first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Missouri. Among those out was versatile veteran Laura Ferreira (plantar fascia).

Ferreira is averaging 12.5 points ans 7.5 rebounds this year, and is tied for the team lead with 16 steals.

Sign that March could be miserable
At the risk of tarnishing the men's 7-6 record, the fact remains only one of their victories has been against a top-200 RPI foe (No. 192 FAU). The Bulls will defend to their last breath, but they still don't possess a playmaker who can steadily go get 'em a basket, and their outside shooting is streaky (35.5 percent from long range). Conference play could be a sobering reminder that Gregory's rebuilding job remains in its infant stage.

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