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Sky-high expectations define upcoming season for USF

Junior guard Elisa Pinzan averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists per game last season for the Bulls. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

With the dawn of a new USF women’s basketball campaign comes the rise of new and heightened expectations for a team that reached historic heights last season. 

Coming off its first regular-season and AAC tournament titles, the No. 21 ranked Bulls are seen as one of the best teams in the country.

Coach Jose Fernandez returns the core of a team that went 19-4 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, tied for the best finish in program history.

Here are a few themes Bulls fans should look forward to this season.

Favorites to repeat

In its first season without UConn in the AAC, USF asserted itself as the dominant program in the conference, losing just two games in conference play and bringing home both conference titles. 

Now, the Bulls are once again looked at as the class of the league as they were voted the top team in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll, receiving all 10 of the possible first-place votes, and are the lone team in the AAC to crack the AP Poll’s Preseason Top 25.

One of the main reasons the Bulls are rated so highly is the amount of talent the program is bringing back this season. They are the only team in the conference to have multiple returning players on the preseason all-conference first and second team.

Sophomore guard Elena Tsineke and senior forward Bethy Mununga were both selected to the first team while junior guards Sydni Harvey and Elisa Pinzan made the second team.

All four players were named to an all-conference team at the end of last season.

Talented new faces

In addition to the returning players, USF also brought in a talented batch of new athletes to help bolster the team’s depth, mostly through the use of the transfer portal.

Headlining the group of incomers is Memphis transfer Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. 

A 6-foot-4-inch forward, Mendjiadeu was one of the best bigs in the league last season making second team all-conference, and is poised to do the same in 2021-22, making the preseason first team this year. She led the conference in blocks per game with 1.8 and finished second to Mununga in rebounding with 9.8 boards per contest.

Her Memphis teammate Aerial Wilson also decided to join the Bulls in the offseason. She finished second in the conference in assists at 5.9, only behind Pinzan who had 7.4 per game.

Fernandez dipped into the junior college ranks for more front court depth bringing in forwards Odeth Betancourt and Patience Williams. Betancourt, a Venezuela native, averaged 11.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over two seasons at Panola College in Carthage, Texas.

Williams was a Third Team NJCAA All-American at Florida Southwestern State College where she averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds in her one season with the Buccaneers.

Fernandez also brought in talented high school recruit Bella Weary from DME Academy in Daytona Beach, where she averaged 17 points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals as a senior.

Daunting, exciting nonconference slate

USF has prided itself over the years on stacking its nonconference slate, consistently scheduling top 25 opponents.

However, this year might be the most difficult task the Bulls have faced under Fernandez, possibly taking on five teams ranked in the AP Poll, including four in the top 10. 

The gauntlet begins the third game of the season as the team travels to Knoxville to take on No. 15 Tennessee in the AAC/SEC Challenge on Nov. 15. 

The Bulls will then head to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, from Nov. 20-22, where they can possibly find themselves facing No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 UConn and No. 10 Oregon. They are also set to play reigning national champions No. 3 Stanford on Nov. 26 before leaving the island.

To round out their journey through the nation’s best teams, USF heads south to West Palm Beach for a matchup against No. 19 West Virginia in the West Palm Invitational.

A pair of the nation’s best

In addition to having several of the best players in the conference, USF also has a couple of players being recognized at the national level for being one of the 20 best at their respective positions, in Mununga and Tsineke.

Tsineke was recently named to the Ann Meyers-Drysdale Award watchlist. The award is given out annually to the best shooting guard in Division-I women’s basketball. Last season she led the Bulls in scoring with 13.6 points per game. 

For the second consecutive season, Mununga was named to the Katrina McClain Award watchlist, an award given to the best power forward in Division-I women’s basketball. 

Mununga was one of the best rebounders in the country last season finishing third in the nation with 12.9 boards per game.