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OPINION: Women’s basketball should have been ranked in the Top 25 sooner

USF has obtained votes for months but only just received an official spot in the rankings on Tuesday. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Women’s basketball cracked the USA TODAY/WBCA poll for the first time this season on Tuesday, coming in at the No. 25 slot.

However, considering the strength of their schedule and their dominance over league play, there’s room to wonder why it took so long for the Bulls (19-4, 8-0 AAC) to finally gain entry into the exclusive club.

USF boasted one of the most demanding nonconference schedules in the nation. Its nonconference slate featured matchups against six teams that were ranked in the top 25 of the USA Today preseason poll and seven in the top 50. This includes teams like No. 2 Ohio State, No. 8 North Carolina State and No. 23 Michigan.

Currently, the Buckeyes (19-1, 8-1 Big Ten) rank No. 3, the Wolfpack (15-5, 5-4 ACC) ranks No. 20 and the Wolverines rank No. 13 (16-3, 6-3 Big Ten) in the poll.

The Bulls were relatively successful during that period, notching two upset victories over then-ranked No.18 Texas and No. 19 Arkansas. They also beat Alabama, which also received top 25 consideration in the current iteration of the USA Today poll, 67-59 on Nov. 16.

Coach Jose Fernandez has always assembled tough nonconference schedules. In the 2021-22 season, he coached the Bulls to a pair of upsets over No. 9 Oregon and the reigning NCAA national champion No. 7 Stanford.

“I’m a true believer of playing a great nonconference schedule in November and December, so when the conference schedule rolls around, we’ve been great in unbelievable situations and we’ve been tested,” Fernandez said.

In its most recent stretch of games, the experience USF gained from its nonconference opponents has paid off through its performance in league play.

Currently, South Florida is on a nine-game win streak and is undefeated eight games into its conference schedule. The Bulls are one of just 18 teams in the NCAA that have not lost a conference game this season. During this stretch, they have beaten their opponents by a staggering margin of 15.0 points. In their most recent game, USF stomped Tulsa 89-68 on Wednesday due to its strong play in the paint.

Even with the strong resume the Bulls have put together this season, they only received 31 votes in the Associated Press poll. For context, No. 1 South Carolina received 700 votes, and Texas (15-6, 6-2 Big 12), a team that USF beat on its home court, received 35 votes. Despite this, Fernandez is keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

“I don’t need it. This program has been ranked plenty of times in the top 25. What do we get for it?” Fernandez said.

“It’s great. It’s great for a university athletic program. I think our kids, deep down, feel disrespected. You got two top 25 wins and a top 50 win. There are some guys in that poll that haven’t played the schedule we have. But again, that’s out of our control.”

The last time South Florida was listed on the USA Today poll was Jan. 17, 2022, placing at No. 24. Earlier that season, they placed as high as No. 13 on the same poll during the week of Nov. 29, 2021.

At that point in time, the roster featured players such as forward Bethy Mununga and point guards Elisa Pinzan and Sydni Harvey. Since then, the makeup of the team has changed dramatically. Only five players returned for this current season.

One of those returning players, senior guard Elena Tsineke, leads the conference in scoring an average of 17.4 points per game. Tsineke is determined to lead the Bulls to a national title.

“I don’t think it’s really important,” Tsineke said. “I feel like what matters is what happens at the end of the year”

Senior forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu is also a returning player from the 2021-22 team. She is currently averaging 16.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game and voiced a similar sentiment.

“At this point, it does not even matter anymore, we just like playing together,” Mendjiadeu said. “We’re going to be winning and all that. If they want to rank us, good. If not, honestly, it does not take anything away from us.”