If USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez and the Bulls are looking to the future, it would be tough to blame them. Coming off a scandal-ridden 4-24 season and featuring four freshmen, the last year is something they don’t want to talk about.
“It’s something that’s in our past, but you want to forget it to tell you the truth,” Fernandez said. “Last year, I had a great bunch of kids who never gave up. We just didn’t have enough bodies and we weren’t as talented as a lot of the teams we played.”
The Bulls will be very inexperienced, with Dione Smith the lone USF senior. She redshirted after being dismissed from the team before last season by former coach Jerry Ann Winters. Youth won’t be the Bulls’ only distraction. Smith and eight other former players still have lawsuits pending against Winters for discrimination.
“The bottom line is there are a lot of issues going on at this institution,” Smith said. “Some that haven’t even surfaced to the point that the public knows. If it hadn’t been in The Oracle, people wouldn’t have known it was going on.”
In addition, the Bulls have undergone a tremendous turnover in the last year. Eight of the 12 players on last year’s roster are no longer with the team. In their place is a talented class of newcomers ranked No. 36 by All Star Girls Report Newsletter. The group consists of freshmen Jen Kline, Alana Tanksley, Allison AuBuchon and Tristen Webb, plus transfers Sonia Cotton and Jameelah Trimble. Cotton could only practice with the team a year ago after transferring from Florida International, while Trimble will sit out this year and be eligible in 2002-03 following her departure from Florida.
“Sonia Cotton’s going to have a great year, coming from FIU and having one year to develop and become better. Jameelah Trimble’s potential is unlimited at 6-5, how she can run the floor and play defense. We’re fortunate to have two impact kids like that come to our program.”
Unfortunately, the squad has not been able to shake controversy. Within the first two weeks of practice, AuBuchon received an academic suspension and forward Lindsey Smith quit the team in the middle of rehabilitating her second torn anterior cruciate ligament in two years.
“Well, we didn’t have much of a frontcourt to begin with,” Fernandez said. “Ashley Teets is not a center in this league; she’s a three (small forward) or a four (power forward). She’s only 6-foot-1. Really, with us losing Denetrice Stinson with a medical injury, that hurts. She was our best inside player.”
The losses of AuBuchon and Smith, plus Stinson, the Bulls’ leading rebounder a year ago, leave the Bulls decidedly undersized in the post. Stinson retired due to a chronic back injury, and her absence makes Teets the lone frontcourt player on the roster until AuBuchon returns. That suits Fernandez and the Bulls just fine, as they will implement a full-court pressure defense and look to shoot as many threes as possible. However, Fernandez says not having a true post player on the floor doesn’t bother him.
“With the style we’re going to play, we’re going to put our best five players out on the floor,” Fernandez said. “We’re going to play up-tempo, which a lot of teams in the country do, without a true inside player. This year, our strength is our athleticism and speed. Everybody on the roster can put the ball on the floor and shoot the three. We’ll be playing up-tempo – running and pressing. It’ll be fun to watch.”
Fernandez isn’t the only person excited about the new, aggressive style of play.
“I love (this style of play),” junior Aiya Shepard said. “Our coaches told us when (the shots) aren’t falling to pass the ball around more and to keep shooting. It helps a lot when you have coaches that tell you that’s a good shot and to keep shooting. There’s no way you can be (gun shy in this offense).”
The Bulls look solid in the backcourt, especially at point guard. USF returns its starter each of the last two years, Smith in ’00 and Melissa Tape in ’01, at the spot, but it’s possible that neither will start this year. That’s because Webb, the No. 5 prospect in Georgia last season, has the potential to take control of the position.
“It’s a battle,” Fernandez said. “I’ve got three of them: Dione Smith, Tristen Webb and Melissa Tape. It’s a battle – day in, day out. It’s good when you have competition. It breeds excitement. That’s probably the position with the most competition right now.”Fierce but friendly competition should also arise at shooting guard and small forward. Five players, Tanksley, Cotton, Kline, Sarah Lochmann and Shepard – second-team All-Conference USA in ’01 – will vie for playing time between the two spots. But with only Teets at center, someone will have to play in the post at least until AuBuchon returns.
“In some ways, we’ll have a disadvantage in the post,” Shepard said. “But in a lot of ways, we’ll have an advantage because their post players will have to come guard our guards. That creates a lot of problems for other teams’ post players.”No matter who plays, the expectations on the USF women’s basketball team are quite low. With a single win in C-USA a year ago, the coaches’ pre-season poll had the Bulls slotted last among the conference’s 14 teams. With the addition of East Carolina and TCU this year, only the 12 best teams in the conference will advance to the tournament March 1-4 at DePaul.
“We’re using that as a motivational factor,” Fernandez said of the coaches’ predictions. “You look at our non-conference schedule and we want to win at least nine of those, and in conference we want to finish at least .500 in league play and go into the conference tournament and win at least our opening round game. I think that we’re going to be improved in our league play and we haven’t set unrealistic goals like winning the C-USA Tournament. We’re taking baby steps.”