Bulls to face a couple of the best teams in the nation this week

USF women’s basketball kept pace with then-No. 2 Baylor in last year’s 58-46 loss in Waco, Texas. The Bulls invite two top-10 teams to the Yuengling Center this week — No. 4 Baylor and No. 6 Mississippi State. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF women’s basketball tipped off its season Saturday evening by beating the Jacksonville Dolphins 84-46 in a blowout victory.

A convincing win and quality performance across the board.

While any win is gratifying, the fact of the matter is that things are going to ratchet up rather quickly for the Bulls.

USF will play host to the No. 4 Baylor Bears on Tuesday night and then turn around to host the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs shortly thereafter Saturday night.

Baylor and Mississippi State are undoubtedly two of the best teams in the nation, and playing them back-to-back is likely to draw some anxiousness.

However, coach Jose Fernandez believes his team is looking forward to the challenge.

“Well I think all players want to play against the best programs,” Fernandez said. “We pick who we play in nonconference [games]. We decide those games, and going into this year we had Baylor as a return game, we got Mississippi State.”

Fernandez also said that he thinks under normal circumstances the crowds would have been considerably large at these games.

“I feel terrible for our fans just because we have such a great following and our season-ticket holders [as well],” Fernandez said. “I think this [Baylor game] would have been a very well-attended game, such as Mississippi State coming up.”

While having an empty arena is certainly a negative, good things can still come from these games.

If USF can pull off a win against either or even both squads, it would likely receive considerable attention across the college basketball landscape.

Over the last two decades, Baylor has been a women’s basketball powerhouse under the guidance of coach Kim Mulkey.

Since Mulkey joined the team in 2000, Baylor is 604-101 and has three national championships under its belt.

This season looks to be no different, as the Bears appear to have started their dominance yet again.

In their first game of the season, they defeated Central Arkansas 82-37.

Forward NaLyssa Smith picked up where she left off. The 6-foot-2-inch junior posted a 25-point, 15-rebound double-double.

Fellow junior forward Caitlin Bickle arguably had the best game of her collegiate career in her first-ever start for Baylor.

She posted 14 points, 11 rebounds and four steals, all of which were career highs.

Baylor won this game without senior guard DiDi Richards and junior center Queen Egbo. Richards is recovering from a spinal cord injury and hopes to get back on the court at some point this year.

Egbo was out for an undisclosed reason.

Guarding such talented post players like Smith and Egbo is a challenge, but one Fernandez said his team will be prepared for.

“Both [Smith and Egbo] [are] very talented, we’ll be ready for Queen [Egbo] if she does play or doesn’t play,” Fernandez said. “I thought that Caitlin Bickle kid did a really, really good job in the minutes she played.”

Baylor lost three of its top five scorers this past offseason, but with players like Bickle coming into the fold and making an impact, the Bears are still one of the best teams in the nation.

As for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are right up there with Baylor as one of the best teams in the country and have their two top scorers from last season returning.

Forwards Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter led the way last season, as they scored 15.1 and 13.0 points per game, respectively.

In their first game this year, the duo combined for 33 points in an 88-58 victory over the Jackson State Tigers.

In addition to Jackson and Carter, sophomore guard JaMya Mingo-Young had a high-quality game in just her second career start.

The 5-foot-8-inch guard had 13 points, nine rebounds, five assists and shot an efficient 3-of-4 from the field.

Both games are stiff tests for the Bulls, but they can serve as a measuring stick to see how USF stacks up against some of the best in the nation.

While these two matchups appear daunting, Fernandez made it clear that he and his team are open to any challenge.

“Right now we have two available game dates still, we will play anybody and anybody, any time,” Fernandez said.