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USF basketball: Two polar opposite seasons

USF men and women’s basketball had varying levels of success over the 2022 season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

With both USF basketball seasons coming to a close, now is the time to reflect on what both teams accomplished this season and take a look at what Bulls fans can expect next season.

The women’s team maintained its reputation as perennial conference title contenders. Meanwhile, the men showed there is still a long road to success for the program as they finished in the basement of the AAC.

Women’s basketball remain among AAC’s best

Coming off an AAC regular-season and tournament title in 2021, USF women’s basketball had sky-high expectations this year. The Bulls were ranked in the AP poll’s Top 25 and were tabbed to once again finish at the top of the conference.

While the Bulls didn’t reach those same heights as they failed to repeat as conference champions and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they still had another strong showing in 2022.

USF managed to get wins over teams ranked in the top 10, including a 57-54 win over reigning national champions Stanford. In conference play, the Bulls finished second to rivals UCF in the regular-season standings and fell to the Knights in the tournament championship game. 

Over the course of the season, USF proved themselves to be among the top two teams in the conference and it’s a position the program seems to be locked into for the foreseeable future.

Roster Holes to fill: Post players

Rebounding and interior defense have been the calling cards of the last few women’s teams, spearheaded by senior forwards Bethy Mununga and Shae Leverett. But with both players leaving the program, it leaves concerns about who can fill their void.

Mununga was one of the best rebounders in the country, finishing in the top 12 of Division I in rebounds per game the last two seasons. She was also a key offensive piece with her work on the glass, averaging 9.4 points per game.

Leverett was the anchor of USF’s defense and was a six-year veteran for the program. She was a key piece to each of the Bulls’ postseason runs over the past few years.

Although coach Jose Fernandez has a stable of front court players, outside of forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, they are mostly unproven.

One big question for next season: Returners

There could potentially be even more roster turnover for the Bulls depending on the decision of junior guards Elisa Pinzan and Sydni Harvey. Academically, both are seniors but will have the opportunity to return for an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 if they choose to use it.

Harvey and Pinzan are two of USF’s most important players on both ends of the floor. Losing either one could be a big blow for Fernandez.

Pinzan played the most minutes of anyone on the team over the last few seasons, playing all 40 minutes multiple times this season. Harvey became the 25th player in program history to score 1,000 career points.

A year to forget for men’s basketball

The 2021-22 season was tough to predict from the jump, as the roster turnover to coach Brian Gregory’s team was substantial. The team returned just four players from last year’s squad and welcomed 10 new faces, the majority of which were underclassmen.

A preseason coaches’ poll tabbed USF to finish toward the bottom of the AAC standings, a glass-half-empty prediction that turned out to be optimistic. In reality, the Bulls finished dead last with a 3-15 record in conference play.

USF could never string together consecutive wins and failed to advance past UCF in the first round of the AAC Tournament.

A foundation to build upon

The team’s overall youth and inexperience deserve a mention as a major factor in the lack of success. 

Of the 10 incoming transfers, only one was a four-year senior with a seasoned college career in guard Javon Greene. Junior guard Serrel Smith Jr. also arrived with experience at Maryland and East Tennessee.

For the rest of the transfers and the true freshman, even a disappointing season will serve them well going forward. The familiarity with Gregory, the coaching staff and chemistry with teammates should provide for a strong base going into 2022-23. 

Transfer portal chaos notwithstanding, the only unknown as far as returning starters is sophomore guard Caleb Murphy, who has previously expressed interest in turning pro. As of now, he and sophomore center Russel Tchewa will likely combine as the Bulls’ top scoring options going forward. 

One big question for next season: The offense

USF’s offensive struggles have been well documented over the course of the season. Aside from the worst shooting percentages in Division I, the Bulls also had the third-worst scoring average at 57.5 points per game. 

With a full offseason to work with a group of players that are now familiar with Gregory’s offensive system, the Bulls should see improvement next year. That’s not exactly saying much though.

If this team’s offense does not improve significantly, Gregory’s position should be in question, regardless of the recent extension he was given. Having the country’s worst offense two seasons is a row is simply unacceptable.