Despite USF’s “unfinished business” to redeem itself from an NCAA Tournament snub that concluded with a 62-52 WNIT semifinal loss to Rutgers at home last Wednesday, coach Jose Fernandez is already looking forward to next season; more specifically, an appearance in next season’s NCAA Tournament.
That is what he guaranteed spontaneously to all 1,781 fans at the game through Sun Dome’s PA system. He hasn’t seen his 2014-15 roster practice yet, but he already sees them in the
Fernandez shared this thought with coach C. Vivian Stringer from Rutgers, who beat USF en route to the WNIT title.
“(Fernandez) has the talent, he has the coaching skills, and he has the ability,” Stringer said.
Stringer, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, is familiar with the types of teams selected in March. She has been to 25 NCAA Tournaments and coached in two national championship games.
Other popular NCAA Tournament coaches such as UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Louisville’s Jeff Walz voiced their support for USF before this year’s Selection Monday.
It is clear they recognize the talent of this year’s Bulls, which will be most of next year’s team. USF will see 14 players return, but will lose center Akila McDonald and guard Inga Orekhova in the process.
USF will not have to look far when replacing the contribution of McDonald and Orekhova, though.
Freshman center Katelyn Weber, an inch taller than 6-foot-4 McDonald, was included in the rotation this past season. Assuming Weber starts next season, 6-foot-4 freshman center Paige Cashin will be her backup. Together, they will maintain a presence on the paint.
Orekhova’s field goal efficiency will be matched, if not exceeded, by sophomore guard Courtney Williams, who went from being the first guard off the bench during the 2012-13 season to a first-team all-AAC player this season, averaging 16 points per game.
Three of USF’s 12 underclassmen, Williams, sophomore Alisia Jenkins and redshirt freshman Laura Marcos Canedo, have started since January; they won every game except for match-ups against No. 1 UConn and No. 3 Louisville.
Williams and Jenkins both played crucial roles in each tournament run. Williams sunk a game-winning 3-pointer during the WNIT quarterfinals against Mississippi State, and led the team with 19 points against Rutgers last Wednesday. Jenkins was only eight boards away from breaking the program’s single-season rebounding record.
Williams and Jenkins averaged a combined 25.9 points and 17.8 rebounds per game last season, which is saying a lot considering both are under 6-foot-2.
With the return of these two players, Fernandez is no longer the only person with knowledge to share about competing against the nation’s 64 best teams in March. That
understanding is taught and shared by more experienced teammates to the less experienced ones.
More important than USF losing two players this year is that it will lose only two more next season in Tamara Taylor and Ivana Vuletic, who combined for 6.9 points per game this season.
One can expect USF’s rising talent to carry it to the NCAA Tournament for not one, but two consecutive seasons. That’s not even counting USF’s incoming class of recruits.
USF has a legitimate chance to make three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years (counting its 2013 appearance), an accomplishment never before experienced by this program, and one that could propel USF to national prominence.
Even if the Bulls made history as the only program to win two WNIT titles, a feat they nearly completed last week, Fernandez was right for admitting it would not have made a difference to the selection committee, despite using “unfinished business” as a goal for his players to emotionally retaliate against the decision.
The Bulls need NCAA Tournament appearances, and Fernandez’ public guarantee could have been stretched into 2016. Provided USF makes two straight NCAA Tournaments, his guarantee was a declaration of independence from the WNIT – a second-rate tournament to the Big Dance.
The women’s basketball team has seen their share of WNIT appearances, and by 2016, they will no longer have to settle for a tournament with little to brag about.