TAMPA — USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez looks at his roster and says, “this team deserves to play a great schedule.”
It’s why Fernandez loaded up on great opponents, leading to what he called the toughest schedule in his 22 seasons with the Bulls — which is saying a lot, because USF once played in the Big East with several powerhouses, including 11-time national champion UConn.
After opening the season Nov. 9 at home against Texas Rio Grande Valley, USF’s schedule quickly becomes more challenging. On Nov. 15, the Bulls travel to perennial power Tennessee, followed the next week by two events in the Bahamas — the prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis and the Baha Mar Hoops Flamingo Championship. In that span, USF potentially could face three of the four teams that took part in the 2021 Women’s Final Four — UConn, South Carolina and defending national champion Stanford.
The Bulls will play Stanford in the Flamingo on Nov. 26. Whether they face UConn and/or South Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis will depend on how the brackets play out.
Bottom line: It will be a challenging road for the Bulls, who not only return their six top scorers from last season but have added some serious talent, including one of the most sought-after players in the transfer portal — 6-foot-4 redshirt senior Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, who came from Memphis.
The hype surrounding this team grew Wednesday, when USF was picked by AAC coaches to defend its conference title, earning the top spot with 10 of the 11 possible first-place votes. In addition, five Bulls were named to the preseason all-conference teams, including first-teamers Fankam Mendjiadeu, Elena Tsineke and Bethy Mununga; and second-teamers Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan.
The combination of the 6-foot Mununga and Fankam Mendjiadeu, coupled with 6-2 senior Shae Leverett, should allow the Bulls to match up with just anybody under the boards. Mununga led the AAC last year with 12.9 rebounds per game, while Fankam Mendjiadeu was second at 10.6, followed by Leverett at 6.8.
Guards Tsineke, Harvey and Pinzan, meantime, return as the team’s top three scorers, averaging 13.6, 11.7 and 10.3 points a game, respectively.
But there is even more to get excited about, including the dramatic improvement in the offseason of 5-8 freshman guard Sara Guerreiro and the additions of 6-1 junior college transfer Patience Williams and 5-10 guard Aerial Wilson, who started 49 of 50 games for Memphis the past two seasons.
Fernandez, who is steadily back to strength after offseason abdominal surgery, said his team’s energy and chemistry couldn’t be much better through the first week-plus of practices — particularly after last season’s struggles that involved a 30-day midseason layoff due to coronavirus issues.
“Everything that this team went through last year, I mean, it was tough,” Fernandez said. “We were playing our best basketball at the time (of the coronavirus shutdown), and then we had a 30-day layoff and we just kind of stumbled all the way through into the NCAA tournament (before losing in the second round to North Carolina State 79-67).”
Fernandez said the tougher schedule might help the Bulls receive a higher position than the No. 8 seed they received last year, which many saw as a snub after USF finished 18-3 and won both the AAC regular-season and tournament titles.
“I think our guys know what we have ahead of us in November and December and why we scheduled the way we did,” Fernandez said. “The goal is to get a better seed than a 7, 8 or 9 seed. You get a better seed, you have an opportunity to be a host in the first or second round, and if you do that it gives you a much better chance to get to that second weekend (of the NCAA tournament).”
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