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For USF women’s basketball, conference play more critical than ever

In past winters, their quality wins have shimmered like Christmas ornaments. As December segues to January, the USF women’s basketball team’s resume typically bears all the sparkle and splendor of a holiday yard display, worthy of multiple gazes.

This season, the display is far dimmer.

The Bulls faced three ranked teams in non-conference play (Texas, North Carolina State, Baylor) and lost by double digits to all three. Tack on losses to Alabama (by 29) and Arizona State (by 17), and USF finished 0-5 against Power Five opposition in November and December.

The wattage needed for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid simply hasn’t been generated. Even worse, no American Athletic Conference team has cracked the top 80 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, the selection committee’s primary mechanism for evaluating teams.

“We’re still taking the process one game at a time, but I think (the players) know that we don’t have any top-50 (NET) wins,” Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. “We don’t have a top-100 win, so we’ve got to take care of business in league play.”

Such is the sense of urgency with which the Bulls (9-5, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) have embarked on their conference slate. At this point, winning the league tournament represents the Bulls’ only avenue to their eighth NCAA berth in the last nine seasons (excluding the COVID year of 2019-20).

Seven of those berths came via at-large bids, achieved mainly by quality non-league triumphs.

“The resume isn’t there this year for an at-large bid (for USF),” longtime ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme said.

The Bulls’ quest for an AAC regular-season title and top seed in the league tourney (March 9-13 in Fort Worth, Texas) began with a 70-61 home triumph Saturday against SMU, though the deficiencies that have hampered Fernandez’s team continued manifesting themselves.

The Bulls, who entered the game tied for 110th nationally in turnovers per game (15.1), committed 18 against the Mustangs. Through 14 games, they’re averaging 65.9 points, nearly five fewer than last season’s 27-7 club.

And while they’re averaging a hearty 12.6 offensive a rebounds per game, it hasn’t translated into low-post scoring. USF, experiencing a transition year of sorts, still is adjusting to the loss of top scorer Elena Tsineke (17.9 points per game) and 6-foot-4 WNBA draftee Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (16.5 points, 12.3 rebounds per game).

Further hindering the interior offense is the season-ending knee injury to 3-point extraordinaire Sammie Puisis, whose 109 3-pointers in 2022-23 were third-most in a single season by a USF player.

“Huge,” Fernandez said of the loss of Puisis. “Because (her presence) just freed up everything else. Freed up the inside for easier baskets because you’ve got to extend your defense.”

Still, Fernandez said he has noticed marked improvement in his club in recent weeks, as evidenced by the win against SMU, whose NET ranking (107) remains two spots ahead of USF’s. Critical to that continued improvement will be the ongoing progress of his newcomers, namely freshman guard Vittoria Blasigh and Auburn transfer Romi Levy.

An Italy native, Blasigh leads USF in scoring (13.9 ppg) and is averaging nearly 40% from long range (39 of 98). Levy, a 6-3 redshirt junior, is averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 rebounds, but has increased her production (13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) in the last four contests.

“We’ve got to get more stuff off the glass,” said Fernandez, whose team hosts Charlotte in its second league contest Wednesday. “Interior post play, those are my concerns right now.”

How well they address those concerns will determine their March destiny. This year, the road to the NCAAs is single lane.

“With no teams currently in the NET top-75,” Creme said, “it’s a near certainty that the AAC will be a one-bid league this season.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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