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Fernandez faces challenge of juggling talented roster

Coach Jose Fernandez has had plenty of success in his 20-plus seasons coaching the USF women’s basketball team, but this upcoming campaign may be one with the highest expectations yet. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Of all the teams he’s coached over his 22 years with the Bulls, this year’s women’s basketball team may be the most talented that coach Jose Fernandez has ever had.

The Bulls, who were selected as the top team in the AAC in the coaches preseason poll, are set to begin the season as one of the best in the nation, being ranked No. 21 in the AP Preseason Top 25 Poll released Tuesday.

In addition to bringing back the core of a team that won USF’s first regular-season and tournament conference titles last year, the Bulls brought in a wealth of talent through the transfer portal in 2021 AAC second-teamer Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Aerial Wilson from Memphis, as well as highly touted junior college prospects Odeth Betancourt and Patience Williams. 

Fernandez knows that with all of the talent on this year’s roster, much like last season, there will be a handful of players sacrificing a lot of their playing time in order to put the best possible rotation on the floor.

“[The] tough job is we’ve got to find eight, nine [players] that [are] going to be a really good rotation and then the other four [or] five that cheer like hell,” Fernandez said during an Oct. 12 press conference. “I thought one thing about our team last year, why we were so successful, everybody embraced their role.

“There’s no possible way you’re going to be able to play 12-15 guys in a basketball game.”

A benefit of having a team with as much depth as this one is that the Bulls will have the luxury of resting key players more than they have in the past.

Junior guards Elisa Pinzan and Sydni Harvey and senior forwards Bethy Munnga and Shae Leverett all played more than 25 minutes per game last season while Pinzan (35) and Mununga (31) both played over 30.

With the addition of players like Wilson, who was second in the league in assists per game to Pinzan, and frontcourt talents like Mendjiadeu, Betancourt and Williams, Fernandez will be able to rest his starters in key situations and have them healthier down the stretch.

“Aerial Wilson, bringing in a kid that started every game in her first two years at Memphis, now you don’t have to rely on Elisa Pinzan playing 27, 28 minutes a game, right,” Fernandez said. “So I think she’ll be healthier in January [or] February.”

This season seems to only be the beginning of a trend for Fernandez and the Bulls as he is already set on bringing in more big-time talent for next year’s roster that’ll once again force him to make some difficult decisions.

However, he knows that comes with the territory of coaching one of the best programs in the nation, and it’s a problem he hopes will continue in seasons to come.

“We won 19 games last year [and] lost in the second round of the [NCAA] tournament. We had two [who] signed pro and another three transferred, and we had a really good year,” he said. “Well, that could be the same thing this year with the transfer portal. It’s going to be tough, I mean, we’re good.

“We’re going to sign three really, really good [recruits] in November. But that’s what good programs do and that’s where our program’s at right now.”