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War on I-4 rematch has big-picture implications

Both the Bulls and Knights will have something to play for during Thursday’s game in Addition Financial Arena. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Despite winning its first regular season conference title with a 65-62 victory over UCF on Tuesday night, Thursday’s regular-season finale against the Knights still has big-picture implications for the No. 15 USF women’s basketball team.

Every game the Bulls (15-2, 13-1 AAC) play from here until the end of the conference tournament will be essential to bolstering the team’s resume and potential tournament seeding ahead of the selection show March 15.

“Thursday’s about NCAA seed and those implications,” coach Jose Fernandez said following the win Tuesday night.

This year, the NCAA committee is using the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings in the selection process for the first time after years of using the rating performance indeed (RPI). 

NET encompasses a wide variety of factors and advanced statistics in an attempt to get a full picture of the best teams in the country. The metric takes into account not only winning percentages like RPI but also game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses.

Although NET won’t be the sole factor in the process of picking the 64 teams for the tournament, it will be one of the most prominent metrics when the time comes to make the bracket.

“The NET isn’t the be-all-end-all to select the 64 teams,” NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee Chair Nina King said in an interview with NCAA Digital on Jan. 19. “But it is something that the committee will look at. It is a metric, a number that will be on the team sheets and that we’ll dive deeper into as we approach selections in March.”

The Bulls currently rank 24 in NET, but will most likely need to improve that ranking by at least nine slots in order to secure one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament. With UCF (13-3, 11-2 AAC) currently ranked top 50 in NET, another win over the Knights will only help USF’s cause.

“It would be big for us because of where their NET is, how important it is to go on the road and get a win, to help our NCAA resume,” Fernandez said. “As far as seeding wise.”

The implications of Thursday’s game is not one-sided, however. UCF needs a win in order to keep its tournament hopes alive. Another loss to the AAC champs could be fatal to their aspirations.

“It’s going to be an important game for them, just because of where we’re at in the NET, to bolster their NCAA resume as well,” Fernandez said.

For Fernandez’s team the key to Thursday’s game will be trying to contain UCF sophomore guard Alisha Lewis who terrorized the Bulls on Tuesday night. Lewis finished with 27 points on 56% shooting from the field and 66% from three-point range.

“Their kid Alisha Lewis had a really, really good game,” Fernandez said. “We got to do a much better job on Lewis on Thursday.”

With the season winding down and postseason play quickly approaching, Fernandez is looking forward to finally having time to be with his team and focus on the issues that he feels need to be corrected before the tournament. A luxury that they haven’t been afforded due to the 31-day hiatus limiting their practice time.

“We still got a lot of basketball left,” Fernandez said. “We need to practice, that’s what we need to do. We need to practice where we just worry about ourselves. And I think right after Thursday, we’ll have some time to just concentrate on us.

“That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The Bulls and Knights tip off Thursday at 5 p.m. in Orlando. The game will be televised on ESPNU and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.