So much for rebuilding: Bulls surge into UConn showdown
This wasn't how logic drew it up. Based on the scoring punch and sturdy rebounding that departed from USF's roster last spring, the Bulls were projected to rebuild, reassess and, dare we say, regress.
Yet through 14 games, what they've done mostly is refute.
"Tradition doesn't rebuild," Coach Jose Fernandez said.
If the season's first half is any sign, USF (13-1, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) is evolving from top-25 upstart to mainstay before its fan base's eyes. Tuesday, the nation gets a glimpse of the No. 20 Bulls as they try to keep top-ranked Connecticut (14-0, 2-0) from earning its 90th consecutive win, which would tie its own NCAA record (men or women).
Less than 10 months after No. 2 all-time scorer Courtney Williams, career rebounding leader Alisia Jenkins and sleek point guard Shalethia Stringfield exited, the Bulls are scoring more (79.0 ppg to 72.7), rebounding more (45.6 rpg to 42.8) and distributing the ball more efficiently than last year's NCAA second-round qualifier.
Their assist-turnover ratio (plus-1.25) ranks 23rd nationally, and they've committed the third-fewest fouls (12.7 per game) in Division I. Among their quality wins are triumphs against Georgia (10-6) and North Carolina (12-4) in a three-night span.
"Don't get me wrong, our program wouldn't be where it was if it wasn't for those (departed) kids," Fernandez said.
"But I think it was a thing that...these guys left, and at the end of the day we're still South Florida. And (the current team) wanted to say, 'Hey, how 'bout us. We're here. Yeah, those were good guys, but now we have an opportunity to be great.'"
Williams' departure for the WNBA left Fernandez without a player who could create a basket -- often in mid-air -- as the shot clock elapsed. Collective athleticism also suffered a dropoff.
As a result, the Bulls don't press, and lean more heavily on the 3-pointer, led by reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Week Kitija Laksa (21.6 ppg).
Finally healthy after ankle problems at the end of last season, Laksa has buried 54 of USF's 116 treys, and scored 37 in Saturday's 84-68 win against Tulsa.
Complementing her are 6-foot European veterans Maria Jespersen (14.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and Ari Pujol (14.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) who have evolved from role players to key components after remaining at USF all summer.
But no one has progressed like 5-7 point guard Laia Flores, who transformed her body in the offseason and led the under-20 Spanish national team to the European Championship. Flores' 7.1 assists per game currently ranks 11th nationally.
And consider: Fernandez' rotation might be even more explosive were it not for preseason injuries to veteran sharpshooter Laura Ferreira (plantar fascia) and heralded Denmark recruit Enna Pehadzic.
"I think these kids really have an unbelievable love for one another. They hold the next guy accountable for each other, and that's why you're good," Fernandez said.
"That's what a program does. There shouldn't be rebuilding years. That means we haven't done a good job recruiting and we haven't done a good job developing. So there shouldn't be a rebuilding type of deal."