TAMPA ― While most peers embrace non-conference challenges, veteran USF women’s coach Jose Fernandez bear hugs them. For much of his 20-season tenure, the man hasn’t met a November gauntlet he didn’t relish.
This time, he might have outdone himself.
Fernandez’s never-ending quest to prepare his team for conference play and bolster its RPI enters a new stratosphere of sorts beginning Tuesday, when the No. 22 Bulls (4-0) face reigning national champ Baylor (3-0) in Waco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN+).
Six days later, 2019 NCAA runnerup Notre Dame awaits in the Cancun Challenge in Mexico. Then on Dec. 19, the Bulls play No. 10 Mississippi State ― you know, the 2017 and 2018 NCAA runnerup ― in Las Vegas.
“It’s definitely for strength of schedule and RPI and for seeding,” Fernandez said. “But these are the type of (games) I think that you have to prepare your team for to win that second-round NCAA game, to get to that…third game you play in the NCAA tournament. So that’s why we’re doing it.”
With Connecticut leaving the American Athletic Conference (ninth nationally in conference RPI with the Huskies last season) in 2020, scheduling needle-moving RPI games in November and December will become even more imperative down the road.
Yet Fernandez may struggle to top 2019.
The Bulls defeated Texas (15th in the preseason) on Nov. 8, get Florida Gulf Coast (a 28-5 NCAA Tournament team last season) on Nov. 29 in Cancun, and will play either UNLV or Virginia in Vegas two days after facing Mississippi State.
The Bears, who have trampled three woefully overmatched foes by an average of 70.7 points, return five players (three starters) who appeared in last season’s 82-81 NCAA finals win against Notre Dame.
Among that group, however, is 6-foot-4 senior Lauren Cox. The reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a third-team All-American (13.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.6 blocks), Cox is out indefinitely with a foot injury.
“Our team defense has to be really, really good; we’ve got to do a great job on the glass, that’s for sure,” Fernandez said. “They were just so better than all three of their first opponents that they just scored a lot of times on talent alone.”