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Women’s basketball season preview

Last year’s AAC Freshman of the Year guard Elena Tsineke is poised to a key player for the Bulls once more after being named to the AAC Preseason All-Conference Second Team. USF is tabbed to win the conference for the first time in program history. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

The 2020-21 USF women’s basketball season is finally set to begin, and the Bulls will now embark on the most unprecedented college basketball season ever.

While there will be a lot of focus on the logistics of playing a full schedule while keeping all those involved healthy and safe, the on-court product will still attract most of the attention and excitement this season. 

Here are just a few things that Bulls fans should look forward to this season.

Conference favorites at last

Since his arrival at USF in 2000, coach Jose Fernandez has been among the best college basketball coaches in the country. 

Fernandez has turned USF into consistent winners with the team winning at least 19 games going back to the 2011-12 season. 

Now entering his 21st season with USF, Fernandez has led his team to 15 postseason appearances. A top-three conference finish and postseason tournament play were once a far-off dream for the Bulls. Now, it has become the expectation.

“I’m excited where we’re at, this program continues to be a shining star at this university and athletic department and I think across the country,” Fernandez said during a press conference Oct. 20. “I think we’ve been consistent the last nine years, we won at least 19 games. I think six of those years 20-win seasons and three of them 19-win seasons, so we’re definitely going to have some high expectations in my opinion.”

As bright as the Bulls’ star has become over the last several years, they’ve never been able to outshine the darling of the AAC, and of women’s college basketball in general, UConn. 

Some of Fernandez’s best teams weren’t able to capture an AAC title because of the stranglehold that the Huskies and Geno Auriemma had over the conference. In their seven years in the AAC together, USF has finished second place to UConn three times, more than any other team in the conference. 

As UConn left the AAC to return to the Big East, this season is bound to be different. With the top dogs out of the way, the Bulls are now primed to take over the conference. In the AAC Preseason Poll, USF was picked to finish atop the conference for the first time in the program’s history.

If, and this is a big “if”, USF is able to stay healthy for a full season, it would be no surprise that by the end of the season the AAC championship trophy resides in Tampa.

Another strong nonconference schedule

This season USF is set to face a tough slate of nonconference games. The Bulls will face a pair of teams in the top 10 of the AP Top 25, defending national champs No. 4 Baylor and perennial powerhouse No. 6 Mississippi State in the first week of December. 

Although there aren’t as many nonconference games compared to previous seasons because of the pandemic, USF is no stranger to playing a tough schedule early on in the season.

The 2019-20 season presented an even tougher gauntlet for the Bulls. USF took on four teams that were in the Coaches Poll Top 25, three of which were in the top 15. Among those teams were the reigning national champions, Baylor Bears.

USF took a trip to Waco and gave the champs, who were ranked No. 3 in the country at the time, a scare in a 58-46 defeat. 

Before taking on Baylor last year, Fernandez acknowledged how important it was for his team to play a difficult nonconference schedule. By scheduling to play the best teams that the country has to offer, the Bulls set themselves up to be successful later on in the season.

“You’re going to be judged at the end of the year on how your team played, how successful you were — wins and losses, how you did in your league — but also on how you scheduled. And there’s never a question on how we approach that,” Fernandez said.

Super sophomores

Over the last few years, USF has done a good job recruiting players who can contribute immediately, and in last year’s freshman class, they found a few gems that could help the team reach new heights in the next couple of years.

Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke had a slow start to her first season — she missed the first five games after being ruled ineligible to play by the NCAA. But, once reinstated, she hit the ground sprinting. Tsineke led the team in scoring with 12.4 points per game, good for 16th in the conference. 

Tsineke went on to win the AAC Freshman of the Year award and also made the All-American AAC Third Team in 2019-20.

Maria Alvarez was another one of USF’s “diaper dandies.” Although she only played 15 games before a season-ending knee injury, Alvarez was one of the Bulls’ most exciting offensive players while on the floor. 

If Alvarez is able to return from her injury and return to form, Fernandez can have a reliable microwave scorer that he can bring off the bench or plug into the starting lineup.

Along with fellow second-year players Cristina Bermejo, Kristyna Brabencova and Mihaela Lazic, they have the opportunity to put USF over the top this season.

Several Bulls tabbed for individual awards

On top of all the team goals that Fernandez and his team have for the impending season, several players on the team also have their eyes on individual accolade nominations.

After being one of the top post players in the country last season, senior forward Bethy Mununga has been nominated for the Katrina McClain Preseason Watch List. The award is given annually to the best power forward in the nation. 

During her first year at USF last year, Mununga was a monster on the glass, ranking second in the AAC in rebounds per game (10.1) and total rebounds (292). A double-double machine with nine on the season, she was quickly able to establish herself as one of the stars on the team in just a short time with the Bulls.

Other players up for individual awards are Tsineke and junior guard Elisa Pinzan, both named to the AAC Preseason All-Conference Second Team last season.

Pinzan finished as the conference leader in assists per game at 5.2 and made the AAC Third Team. She will look to lead the Bulls offense from the point guard position once again.

While the individual awards will certainly have a place in the players’ minds throughout the season, their ultimate goal will surely be to meet and exceed the lofty expectations that have been placed upon them by Fernandez, Bulls Nation and most importantly, themselves.