Bulls begin quest for NCAA Tournament on Friday

USF is entering the 2017-18 season ranked No. 23 and No. 22 in the Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches polls.

USF women’s basketball will play its first regular season game of 2017 Friday, but it’s goal for the season is already clear — make it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Anything less would be a disappointment.

The Bulls are returning their leading scorer from last season, forward Kitija Laksa, their second leading scorer and leading rebounder, forward Maria Jespersen and their assist leader, point guard Laia Flores.

To go along with the returning starters, the Bulls are getting senior winger Laura Ferreira back and have numerous newcomers such as point guard Alba Prieto, who will make an immediate impact, according to coach Jose Fernandez.

“That’s the next step this program has to make is taking that next step and getting to the second weekend,” Fernandez said. “We’ve had those conversations and we haven’t brought it up in practice. If we take care of business one game at a time, then that second weekend will take care of itself.”

The Bulls’ season came to end last year via a buzzer beater by Missouri that ousted USF from the NCAA Tournament.

In the defeat and throughout the second half of the season, fatigue could’ve played a factor as the trio of Laksa, Flores and Jespersen played all 40 minutes of the final game. On the season, the three played an average of 35-plus minutes per game. 

“By the end of the season, you’ve played so many games so you are a little fatigued,” Jespersen said. “I think that showed probably in the later games. After the game and when you have to warm up the next day, as the season progressed, you can feel it, you are a little bit more tired. I think it’ll be really good for us to play less this year.”

Flores, who played numerous games with an injured ankle midway through the season, played the 27th most minutes per game in the country.

This season, however, Flores has Prieto, a fellow Spaniard who plays on the Spanish national team, to take some of the minutes off of her plate throughout the season which features 30 regular-season games.

“It showed that we played a lot of minutes at the end of the season,” Flores said. “It would’ve been better if we had more rotations, but I think that’s what we have this year. The freshman are really good and they’re going to help us with playing time.”

When asked about Prieto’s game, Fernandez said it was similar to Flores’, who set a program record last season with 200 assists.

“What I like about her, she can find open people in open space,” Fernandez said. “She can score and she can shoot the ball. The good thing is we’re just about having to throw her into the fire and she’s getting a lot of really good experience playing behind Laia (Flores) and learning the system.”

Ferreira’s 2016-17 season ended 11 games in after she sustained an ankle injury. In her sophomore season, she averaged 9.5 points per game and 4.8 assists. Though having her back in any capacity would be a plus for the Bulls, she’s even better after her injury than before, according to her teammates.

“It means we have more rotation, and she can do everything for us — she defends, she rebounds, she passes, she shoots,” Jespersen said. “(She’s) new and improved. I think her sitting out a year, watching basketball from the sideline has helped her and probably gave her a bigger passion for it too. I’m 100 percent sure she’s going to be great for us this year.”

Fernandez agreed.

“It’s good to have her back, just because we have somebody else on the court that can score and can create off the bounce,” he said. “Laura has versatility, too. Laura can rebound and defend multiple positions. I think the summer was good for her, her resting in the spring and the summer was excellent. When we came back, it was like nothing happened last year once she was back on the floor.”

Opposed to last season, where the Bulls managed to win 24 games despite an injury-depleted roster, the 2017-18 may be the deepest Fernandez has ever coached.

“I said it from the beginning, we’re going to play about nine players,” Fernandez said. “There’s going to be three players on this team that are very talented that are not going to play. That’s the just the nature of where our program is at.”

The Bulls are currently ranked No. 23 and No. 22 in the Associated Press (AP) Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll respectively.

Though the rankings are nice to see for the Bulls, they know they have yet to prove anything this season.

“I think it’s a blessing because the season hasn’t even started, we haven’t even played a single game and people already see us, people already rank us,” Laksa said. 

“It’s a great opportunity as well for us to prove somebody maybe wrong or right, but we’re here to play basketball. We’re here to go even higher, we have higher goals than what somebody else sees. It’s nice that people see us and show the love, but we’re here to play basketball and prove ourselves every game.”

The Bulls will have their first chance to prove themselves Friday against LSU, which is receiving votes in both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll.

The Tigers are coming off of a 20-12 season, which ended in a close NCAA Tournament first round loss.

Regardless of what happens in the first game, however, the Bulls will use their depth and experience roster to make a run in the NCAA Tournament in March.

“I feel like there’s a different sense of urgency when we practice,” Jespersen said. “Coach says we’re really experienced, we’ve all been through the drill before. That’s another kind of focus this year that we haven’t had the other years.”

Fernandez said she believes the same. 

“This group has played in those wars already, so they know what to expect,” he said. “In our league, we play the best team in the country (UConn) three times a year. They know what’s at stake here.

“LSU’s season and our season are not going to change on whatever happens on Friday night. We’ve got a veteran group. We’ve got four starters back and Laura Ferreira is healthy. The expectations are what they should be.”