If No. 19 USF wants to be counted among nation’s elite, it must beat No. 5 Baylor

Senior guard Courtney Williams dribbles to the basket during Friday’s win over Jacksonville. She earned AAC player of the week honors after averaging 30 points in the Bulls’ first two games. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

It might only be November, but don’t let the calendar fool you — the road to the Women’s Final Four begins tonight in Waco, Texas.

That is, if the No. 19 USF women’s basketball team plans to be there in April.

After dismantling Jacksonville and Drexel at home to open a season filled with heightened expectations, the Bulls travel to fifth-ranked Baylor for the third leg of the Preseason NIT at 8 p.m. 

There’s only one thing working against USF: it has never defeated a top-5 opponent in the program’s 43-year history. The only time it got relatively close was in 2004 when the Bulls took three-time defending champion Connecticut to the brink on the road in an eventual 75-65 defeat in overtime.

But that’s in the past. If the Bulls plan on being counted among the nation’s elite, it starts now. 

On Friday, in its opener against Jacksonville, USF romped in a 22-point triumph. But for coach Jose Fernandez, there was too much sloppiness on defense for him to be satisfied with his team’s performance.

In fact, Fernandez rated its performance as “horrible.”

Too harsh? Not one bit. 

This team has its sight set on Indianapolis when all is said and done. In order to be there, it cannot afford to turn the ball over 17 times against lower opponents like Jacksonville, or allow them to climb back within seven points after being down 15-0.

“Of course, we are going to be more critical, and we have to get better at the miniscule facets of the game,” Fernandez said after the game. “For where we want to go, we have to play a lot better.”

Welcome to the big time. Leave your troubles at the airport and pick them up in five months.

Will there be struggles this season? Absolutely. It’s just part of maturing and growing as a team. But make no mistake — the Bulls have the pieces to get where they want to go.

Senior guard Courtney Williams has been nothing short of brilliant thus far, averaging 30 points and 11.5 rebounds — good enough for AAC player of the week honors. 

Senior forward Alisia Jenkins is also off to a strong start, sitting just seven boards shy of 1,000 for her career. She needs 84 to tie Wanda Guyton’s 1989 record of 1,077.

The Bulls will run into some solid faces, too. 

Bears All-American forward Nina Davis and junior guard Alexis Jones are averaging 14.5 and 12.2 points per game, respectively, through two lopsided games. Freshmen Kalani Brown and Beatrice Mompremier are also Baylor’s top rebounders at 6.5 per game.

Everything has been peaches and cream for USF. On paper, it’s arguably the most talented group the program has ever fielded. It’s also one of the toughest non-conference slates the team has ever faced, with meetings against No. 24 Chattanooga, Oklahoma State and Penn State still to come.

“South Florida is 19th in the country for a reason,” Jacksonville coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said.

The Bulls have to live up to it tonight.