Fernandez has high hopes for 2005-06 season

Women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez knows his team will be playing against some of the nation’s top teams in the Big East next year.

“I think the Big East conference is going to be one of the best leagues in the country,” he said.

But add that to non-conference games against LSU and Michigan State — two of four teams in last season’s Final Four — and the Bulls have the toughest schedule in the program’s history.

“Our kids are excited,” Fernandez said. “We’re definitely putting our program and our players in a position to play against some of the best teams in the country. Not only in our league schedule, but in our non-conference schedule, too.”

USF, which recorded a program-topping 21 games last season, will face Michigan State at home on Dec. 10 and will travel to LSU on Dec. 30. The Spartans and the Tigers finished ranked seventh and second, respectively.

“I think our players will accept the challenge,” Fernandez said.

A visit from Rutgers highlights the conference schedule. Rutgers finished ranked No. 9 and reached the Elite Eight last season. The Bulls will also host Syracuse, Marquette, Villanova, Providence and West Virginia.

They travel to face Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, St. John’s and Seton Hall. USF will face Pittsburgh twice. Dates and times will be released later this summer.

All in all, 12 teams on the schedule went to the postseason last year.

“I think we’re taking the necessary steps to be the type of team that competes for a league title every year,” Fernandez said. “It’s time for this program to take that next step. Our goal is to be a top-25 program year-in, year-out.”

The Bulls, who have never made it to the NCAA Tournament, lost two seniors, and team standouts Jessica Dickson, Rachael Sheats and Nalini Miller will be juniors.

“Right now the potential is unbelievable,” Fernandez said.