Bulls ‘ahead of schedule’ after first few official practices

In the summer, there was no guarantee Belgium international Bethy Mununga (pictured) and nine other European players would be allowed to join USF. Now the Bulls have all their players available and are “ahead of schedule” before the start of the season, according to coach Jose Fernandez. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

USF women’s basketball is five official practices deep in the 2020-21 season and, for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing.

The Bulls are actually ahead of schedule, coach Jose Fernandez said.

USF began official practice late last week after being limited to individual and team workouts in late June. 

“Before these five practices, we had 17 team workouts that consisted somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours,” he said Tuesday. “Before that, we had position workouts for at least a month, month and a half.

“We’re definitely ahead of schedule [more] than we’ve ever been in the past.”

Getting his players back in the country was a significant concern for Fernandez in the summer, as the majority of his team is made up of international players.

Of the 14 active players on the roster, 10 are from Europe.

Now, every player is back at USF and no one has opted out of the season.

“Everyone’s present and accounted for, and it was great we got them here early as well,” he said. “We had a couple of kids have to quarantine when they arrived here for those 14 days and they missed some position work there that last week of August and first week in September. 

“But everybody’s here I feel really good about this team.”

Being handed an early advantage with the return of the team’s international players is pivotal, especially considering the impact they had last season.

Last season’s AAC Freshman of the Year was sophomore guard Elena Tsineke, who is from Thessaloniki, Greece. She averaged 12.3 points in 26 games and 21 starts.

Junior forward Bethy Mununga of Zellik, Belgium, led USF with 9.9 rebounds in 28 games. She also averaged 9.4 points per game, which made her the second-best scorer on the team behind Tsineke. Mununga also had nine double-doubles, including three in her first four games of the 2019-20 season.

With an abundance of returners and freshman talent, Fernandez sees no issues with how his team is shaping up.

“When you return Elisa Pinzan, All-Conference at the point guard spot. You got Sydni Harvey and Elena Tsineke, which that’s a pretty good backcourt right there in itself … you got [Kristyna] Brabencova and [Maria] Alvarez, and I thought Cristina Bermejo had an unbelievable offseason, she’s going to play at the wing and also going to play some four and Sarah Guerreiro, the incoming freshman,” he said. 

Czech international Mihaela Lazic is expected to contribute as well. She only played in the season opener against Jacksonville, missing the rest of the campaign with a back injury.

“Mihaela Lazic is healthy, so I feel comfortable with Pinzan and Lazic leading our team at the point guard spot,” Fernandez said.

Sophomore Alvarez suffered a knee injury in the conference opener Jan. 5 and has been in recovery ever since. Fernandez said she’s coming along.

“She’s done a lot, I anticipate her going some contact here in the next week, week and a half,” he said. “But she’s running. She’s doing all drills, she’s doing all non-contact. That’s it. That’s the next step.”

Depth has been a concern with college football in the COVID-19 era. Factor in a smaller roster with the fast-paced game of basketball, and there will likely be a greater reliance on bench players, more than there already has been. 

Based on the now 20-game conference schedule instead of the typical 16-game campaign, all hands will need to be on deck. In addition to a strenuous AAC schedule, the Bulls will play at least two top 25 teams in their nonconference schedule.

USF has four non-league games scheduled, but Fernandez wants another top team in the mix.

“We got Baylor here at home. We got Mississippi State here at home. So I think those two are really, really good,” he said. “We got a couple in-state schools that we will play in the other two games in Stetson and Jacksonville right now.

“We need another top 25 RPI game, in my opinion, and that’s what we’re looking for right now to finish a schedule.”

If the Bulls can add another team to the schedule, it would make for a 25-game schedule, five games fewer than last season’s slate.

If his players stay healthy — whether it’s avoiding injury or the coronavirus — Fernandez is confident his team will do fine when the season starts in late November.

“We stay healthy and do our part staying safe and nobody catching COVID, I think we’ll be all right.”