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Lack of depth to blame for late-season slump

Over the past two seasons, USF has gone 29-7 in AAC play, but the Bulls’ three conference losses over the past five games are cause for concern. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACOB HOAG

For most teams, reaching the NCAA Tournament is viewed as a celebration of a good season.

When it comes to USF women’s basketball, the Bulls’ three trips to the Tournament in the past four years and consistent national rankings have made it so that it’s expected to be playing for a championship in March.

But after losing two of the most impactful players in school history in Courtney Williams and Alisia Jenkins, the Bulls have clearly felt their absence.

In a way, the program’s success has caught up with it.

While USF has maintained a national ranking for the majority of the season, three losses in the past five games have dropped the Bulls from those rankings and in danger of losing their spot in this year’s Tournament.

It’s not that the Bulls aren’t talented without Williams and Jenkins, but depth has been an issue as last year’s role players move into this season’s starting lineup.

In the past two seasons, there have been at least nine Bulls to regularly average over 10 minutes per game. However, that number has dwindled to just six in 2017, with freshman forward Dorottya Nagy the only bench player who is on the court for over eight minutes a night.

There’s no doubt USF will return to the level of play witnessed most nights at the Sun Dome, but to expect that to come immediately is wishful thinking.

Coach Jose Fernandez will recruit players to strengthen the bench. The roster will mature. And better yet, the Bulls will lose only one starter, Ariadna Pujol, to graduation.

But the Bulls’ recent tumble in the AAC standings has shown it’s not impervious to losing two program-changing players.

While Fernandez has been able to replace the scoring with sophomore Kitija Laksa (19 points per game) and junior Maria Jespersen (15.6 points per game), he lacks the go-to player that Williams was for USF.

The Bulls, with a 20-6, 9-4 AAC record, have won most of the games they’re favored in, but are 0-3 against ranked opponents and have struggled in conference play lately.

Over the past two seasons, USF has gone 29-7 in AAC play, but the Bulls’ three conference losses over the past five games are cause for concern.

In those losses, the Bulls have lacked a take-over presence.

When Laksa and Jespersen aren’t on their game, neither are the Bulls. Due to the team’s lack of depth, when their leading scorers aren’t producing offense, it’s difficult to make up the difference.

The two forwards failed to make half their shots in all three of those recent losses, shooting just under a combined 38 percent

Whether it’s fatigue from the team’s lack of depth or simply asking too much of players who aren’t ready for the spotlight, USF lacks the undeniable game-changers such as Williams and Jenkins to carry them deep into March.