TAMPA — The USF basketball season formally tips off this week, with the men opening at home Tuesday vs. Alabama A&M, and the No. 22 women starting Friday at Ohio State.
Because questions abound for both teams (especially the men), we thought we'd try offering some answers — or educated guesses — to the most pressing ones. Here goes.
1. Is a .500 season plausible for the men?
Yes, courtesy of an underwhelming non-conference schedule. Of the Bulls' 13 non-league foes, nine were ranked 200 or lower in Sports Illustrated's recent ranking of all 353 Division I teams (USF was 246th). If the Bulls (who will play a minimum 32 games) can collect 10 victories in November and December, then go 6-12 in American Athletic Conference play, that would do it. And don't discount what a monumental step that would represent for this beleaguered program.
2. Who replaces three-year starter Laia Flores at point guard for the women?
Coach Jose Fernandez will lean on the freshman tandem of Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan. Though Harvey was a 2,000-point scorer at Nashville's Brentwood Academy who led her team to four state titles, we're guessing Pinzan initially plays more due to her international experience. She has spent years on Italy's age-group national teams, and currently plays for the under-20 squad.
3. Who fills the void of women's double-double machine Maria Jespersen?
The Bulls return low-post veterans Alyssa Rader (6.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Tamara Henshaw (6.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), the 2017 AAC Freshman of the Year. Additionally, Fernandez is very high on 6-foot-3 freshman Beatriz Jordao, a Portugal native with international experience, surprising agility, and an outside touch.
4. Who will emerge as the men's best outside shooting threat?
Tough to say at this point, but our best guess is Auburn transfer T.J. Lang and sophomore Justin Brown. Lang, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer guidelines, shot 40 percent (48-for-119) from 3-point range three seasons ago. Brown shot only 31.8 percent (35-for-110) as a Bulls rookie, but went 4-for-9 in Tuesday's exhibition romp of Tampa. USF hasn't had anyone finish 40 percent or better from long range (minimum 50 tries) since Toarlyn Fitzpatrick in 2011-12 (41.2).
5. Senior Kitija Laksa needs 688 points to become the all-time leading scorer in USF women's history. Can she do it?
Barring injury, you betcha. The 6-foot Latvian sharpshooter had 717 points last season, when defenses were designed to neutralize her. She'll be hounded and harassed again this season, but Fernandez is an aficionado when it comes to designing screens and isolation plays to free up his shooters.
6. Can the women reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season?
Yes, but don't be shocked at some early hiccups. For all of Laksa's proficiency (21.1 ppg), you don't replace four-year stalwarts such as Jespersen and Flores without some glitches and growing pains. Still, the Bulls should excel in conference play, and will have the opportunity to knock off some Power Five foes (Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, Oklahoma) in non-league action.
7. Is it conceivable the men could reach some type of postseason tournament?
If they do, the administration immediately should commission the carving of the Brian Gregory statue. For all intents, this is a brand-new team — again. Gregory inherited a decimated roster upon his hiring in March 2017, and did what he had to do (graduate transfers, 11th-hour signees) to cobble together a team in Year One. The grad transfers are gone, and the remaining holdovers from previous eras bolted. As a result, only three Bulls on the current club (Brown, sophomore David Collins, senior Nik Scekic) appeared in a game for USF last season. That said, things should stabilize going forward. Year Three could be a breakthrough for Gregory.