There’s a paradox at play within the USF women’s basketball team, not immediately visible but profound nonetheless. A contradiction that might carry the Bulls all the way to April.
On one side of the ledger is wealth, visible in terms of personnel, practice time and plain ol’ cash.
Coach Jose Fernandez, awarded a contract extension and raise following last winter’s 27-8 season, lost nary a starter while gaining a Latvian signee who could blossom into one of the program’s best players ever. With that group, Fernandez took a 10-day competitive tour of Spain preceded by 10 — ten — extra practices.
“Phenomenal,” Fernandez said of the extra work.
Counter that affluence with deprivation, and you’ve got the 2015-16 Bulls. Goals still haven’t been realized, greatness still hasn’t been digested.
Leading third-seeded Louisville by one with 3:43 to play in last year’s NCAA Tournament second-rounder, the Bulls faltered late. Two fouls, two turnovers and two misses down the stretch conspired to doom USF in a 60-52 defeat before a raucous Sun Dome crowd.
“You always have that chip on your shoulder when you lose to teams that you feel like you should’ve beaten,” Sporting News preseason All-America guard Courtney Williams said.
Hence the dynamic at play inside the Muma Center, headquarters to what shapes up as the best USF women’s team ever. The Bulls are wealthier and hungrier.
The rich have gotten ravenous.
The Louisville loss “hurt me really bad because I really wanted it and I know the rest of my teammates that played really wanted it too,” said senior forward Alisia Jenkins, a Sporting News second-team preseason All-American.
“The offseason, I worked on my game even more. I came in like, during the times I didn’t have to come in … and shot more.”
This convergence of desire and depth publicly manifests itself for the first time Friday, when USF — 20th in the initial Associated Press poll — hosts Jacksonville in a Preseason NIT contest.
The Bulls can go big or small, and platoon at point guard. They can shoot from long range or mid-range. Tempo is adjustable.
And it’s a safe bet your local grocer’s poultry section doesn’t have as many quality wings as Fernandez.
“I like our pieces,” Fernandez said.
“Oh man, coach has been throwing a lot of things out there,” added Williams, who led the American Athletic Conference in scoring last season (20.3 ppg). “We could go small, go fast, we can go big … so I think we have a lot of options this year.”
At the crux of this quest for the program’s first Sweet 16 — and perhaps Final Four — appearance are Williams and Jenkins.
Equipped with arguably the nation’s best mid-range jumper, Williams set a program season record for points as a junior (710), then competed on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the World University Games in South Korea in July.
“I think Courtney’s gotten better at something every offseason,” Fernandez said.
“I think Courtney does a great job creating for herself. Now it’s continuing to not only create for herself, but I think create for her teammates. And if Courtney can rebound a little better for us on both the offensive and defensive glass, it will help our team take that next step.”
Williams’ blue-streak fleetness is complemented by Jenkins’ blue-collar style. Though only 6 feet 1 and sinewy, Jenkins set a program season record with 397 rebounds last season and is only 35 shy of 1,000 for her career.
“I think she brings something a lot of kids don’t do: She plays hard on both ends of the floor and she rebounds out of her area,” Fernandez said. “And she has a knack for that ball getting off the rim.”
While opposite pieces of the same puzzle, Williams and Jenkins share at least one commonality: Both are astounded by the upside of 6-foot freshman Kitija Laksa.
The daughter of two basketball coaches, Laksa represents the latest international gem excavated by Fernandez, whose roster features seven foreign-born players. A two-year member of the Latvian Senior National team, Laksa can handle, fill lanes with a deceptively fast glide, and spot up from anywhere — anywhere — on the floor.
During the Bulls’ tour of Spain, she totaled 53 points in three contests, finishing 8-for-13 from 3-point range.
“It touches her hands and it’s gone,” Jenkins said. “She’s a really good shooter … and especially for her to be coming in and young, she’s going to help change this program.”
Such is the bloated roster Fernandez brings to the table, with an appetite.
Let the hunger games begin.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
2015-16 USF women
No. Player Pos. Ht. Cl.
2 Micah Kroll G 5-8 Sr.
4 Neena Pacholke G 5-7 Jr.
5 Trimaine McCullough G 5-8 Jr.
10 Courtney Williams G 5-8 Sr.
11 Ariadna Pujol G/F 6-1 Jr.
12 Maria Jespersen G 6-0 So.
13 Laura Marcos Canedo PG 5-8 Jr.
14 Paige Cashin F 6-4 Jr.
20 Laura Ferreira F 5-11 So.
22 Laia Flores PG 5-7 So.
23 Shalethia Stringfield PG 5-6 Sr.
24 Alisia Jenkins F 6-1 Sr.
32 Nancy Warioba C 6-3 Jr.
33 Kitija Laksa F 6-0 Fr.
45 Katelyn Weber C 6-5 Jr.
November — 13 Jacksonville, 6; 15 Drexel/Dartmouth, 2; 25 Butler, 7; 29 at St. John’s, 1
December — 3 Harvard, 7; 6 Penn State, 3; 13 Chattanooga, noon; 15 at Northern Colorado, 9; 20 Oklahoma State, 2; 30 Mississippi State (at Jacksonville), 4:30
January — 2 at East Carolina, 1; 5 UCF, 7*; 7 SMU, 7*; 10 Connecticut, 5*; 13 at Tulane, 8*; 17 East Carolina, 2*; 20 at Memphis, 8*; 24 at UCF, 2*; 27 Houston, 7*; 31 at SMU, 2*
February — 3 Cincinnati, 7*; 6 at Temple, 2*; 9 Tulane, 7*; 12 at Cincinnati, 7*; 15 at Louisville, 9; 21 Memphis, noon*; 24 at Tulsa, 8*; 27 Temple, 2*; 29 at Connecticut, 7*
4-7 AAC Tournament (at Uncasville, Conn.)
* AAC game