TAMPA — Jose Fernandez knows the NCAA Tournament bubble all too well, so it was a long week of waiting for USF's women's basketball coach before Monday's NCAA selection show.
He went fishing several times, but still could only think of the tournament.
He went to see Kenny Chesney in concert but barely heard a song, tuning all three TVs in the suite to college basketball.
Then Monday night, he and the Bulls got the big catch they wanted, and the show they really wanted to see.
For just the second time, USF is playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls made the cut easily as a No. 10 seed and will play Saturday evening at No. 7 seed Texas Tech in Lubbock.
"It was amazing to see our name get called. I was shocked," said senior guard Andrell Smith, who was confident going in, but surprised to see USF pop up in the first region revealed live on ESPN at a gathering of players, coaches and fans at the Sun Dome. "I've been nervous. At night, I just can't wait to get up the next morning. I couldn't wait, and now we're here. Now we can move forward. I love this."
USF (21-10, 9-7 Big East) had a confident week of waiting, remembering two wins against ranked opponents and a strong finish with a win at Georgetown, then against Rutgers in the Big East tournament. The Bulls have been practicing with focus and eagerness, Fernandez said, not like a team unsure of its future.
"I think they knew they would be playing," said Fernandez, who has settled for the Women's NIT seven times in the past 10 seasons. "Our first year in the Big East conference, '05-06, we went to the NCAA Tournament, and now we're leaving the Big East and going to the NCAA Tournament. … The credit goes to the young ladies over here. They've been relentless. Their work ethic has been tremendous. This is a reward for them. We have plenty of basketball left to play this year. It's been our goal all year. "March" has been our slogan, and they achieved it."
USF isn't the only state team facing a daunting challenge in Texas. Florida State (22-9) is a No. 8 seed in Waco, opening against Princeton but facing the likelihood of a second-round meeting with No. 1 Baylor, the tournament's top overall seed.
Miami (21-10) is a No. 8 seed too, and if the Hurricanes get past Iowa, they would face a second-round game against No. 1 seed Notre Dame in Iowa City. Florida missed the NCAA cut as expected, and Stetson is a No. 14 seed, facing UCLA.
Baylor and Notre Dame join Connecticut and Stanford as the bracket's top seeds, and proximity will help them. Connecticut's regional is in nearby Bridgeport, Stanford in Spokane, Wash., and Baylor in Oklahoma City. Notre Dame is farther from home in Norfolk, Va.
Those four — with eight combined losses, seven to each other — have been the dominant teams in college basketball this year, and they comprised last year's Final Four, so keeping any of those four out of New Orleans this year would be an accomplishment. There are traditional powers in No. 2 seeds like Duke and Tennessee, along with California and Kentucky.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.