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Against all odds, basketball seasons set to begin this week

Fans watch the ball hang on the rim during a men’s basketball game in December 2018. Against all odds, the men’s and women’s seasons starts this week, but they won’t come without challenges. ORACLE PHOTO BRIAN HATTAB

The USF basketball seasons are quite literally days away, and while it wasn’t the easiest road to get there, the teams are itching to play.

“Yesterday was our 29th practice,” women’s coach Jose Fernandez said Tuesday. “We had about 18, 19 team workouts for about an hour and a half, and then you had individual workouts before that. 

“For our student-athletes to go ahead and play against somebody else, we’re ready to go.”

The season has been a long time coming, especially after postseason tournaments were canceled due to the virus in March. 

With a proposed start date of Nov. 25, the beginning of the season looked to be up in the air just last week. It wasn’t until late Friday — a whole five days from the start of college basketball — that both schedules for the Bulls were released.

Just a month ago, those schedules were in the early stages of development, and for men’s basketball, the nonconference schedule was essentially scrapped in October and had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But men’s coach Brian Gregory, whose team faces Florida College on Wednesday at the Yuengling Center, found a way to make it work. 

In that schedule, he included Atlantic 10 powerhouse Rhode Island, ACC member Virginia Tech and LSU, which was picked third in the SEC preseason coaches’ poll.

“Flexibility is my new middle name,” Gregory joked. “What we’ve had to do was completely restructure the entire nonconference. But we also, in the meantime, our objective was to build a quality nonconference schedule.”

Gregory seems to have done just that and is also finalizing plans to add another non-league opponent.

“It’ll be a test, we’ll know where we’re at and it will be very good for us playing those games heading into all-conference play,” Gregory said.

For the women’s team, Fernandez has built quite a non-league schedule as well, but he didn’t have to scramble as much to fill in opponents, and he’s continued the trend of scheduling elite teams.

Last year, there were two matchups that stood out — one against then-No. 15 Texas at home, in which USF won 64-57, and another at then-No. 2 Baylor where the Bulls kept pace with the national champs but lost 58-46.

This year, the Bulls have home tests against No. 4 Baylor and No. 6 Mississippi State on Tuesday and next Saturday, respectively.

The top-10 matchups are preceded by a home game against Jacksonville on Saturday, a team USF beat by 31 points last season. 

Fernandez doesn’t want his team to overlook the game this week, however.

“Let’s go ahead and not look ahead and attack Jacksonville,” he said. “We know what’s coming next week, it’s a great opportunity for our student-athletes with two marquee games at home. In Baylor and Mississippi State, but it’s about us on Saturday.”

As seen with college football, nothing is guaranteed and games can be postponed or canceled on short notice. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco admitted to The Cincinnati Enquirer that basketball will be a challenge this season.

“You’re playing indoors, you’re in each other’s face the whole game and practices,” he said. “You’re in a confined space. One positive could cause a whole team to potentially be quarantined.”

The reality of basketball games getting canceled is a very real possibility, especially given the sheer number of games each week. 

It’s not a matter of being prepared for cancellations, it’s more a matter of being prepared to react, Gregory said.

“Will there be disappointment when games are canceled or postponed? Yes,” he said. “But the one thing I talked about is flexibility. We’ve got to be ready to pivot if we’re getting ready to play Team A and they can’t play, and Team B can play, you’ve got to be able to make an adjustment.

“There is still so much uncertainty out there that you got to be able to have some things that we are certain about, and that’s every day we have an opportunity to get better.”