There’s a new power emerging in the state of Florida.
Fueled by the dynamic duo of Courtney Williams and Alisia Jenkins, the South Florida women’s basketball program has climbed to new heights under veteran coach Jose Fernandez.
Last week, USF (7-2) moved up two spots to No. 17 in the weekly USA Today Coaches’ Poll. On Monday, USF remained at No. 20 in The Associated Press poll, which is voted on by members of the media.
Thanks to four-straight postseason appearances and increased win totals in each of those campaigns, USF has established itself as one of the premier programs in a state that features nationally ranked Florida State as well as Florida and Central Florida.
American Athletic Conference members USF and UCF will have a chance to showcase their strength to a national audience today as part of the SEC/AAC Challenge in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, site of the 2016 SEC tournament. In the first game, No. 20 USF (7-2) will take on No. 8 Mississippi State (12-1) at 3:30 p.m. UCF (3-7) will face Florida (11-1) at 6 p.m. The SEC Network will broadcast both games.
“Coach Vic (Schaefer) and I have a very good relationship,” Fernandez said. “Other SEC teams were given the opportunity to play us, but Vic stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll play them.’ I appreciate that because I think it is a good game for both of our clubs and our RPIs.”
Fernandez, who has guided USF to 11 postseason tournament appearances (three NCAAs) in his 15 seasons at the school, said the game also will be a great chance for Williams, who is on the watch lists for the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award (nation’s top women’s basketball player) and Jenkins to be seen by a national television audience in a nationally ranked matchup against someone other than top-ranked UConn, which also is a member of the AAC.
Williams leads USF in scoring (24.3 points per game), while Jenkins paces the team in rebounding (14.3 per game). Williams is fourth nationally and Jenkins is third, which means USF is the only team with two players in the top five of both statistical categories.
“I think she has really gone underneath the radar, just like I think a kid like (Mississippi State sophomore) Victoria Vivians has gone under the radar,” Fernandez said. “I don’t think the women’s basketball national media does a good enough job covering Mississippi State University and the University of South Florida. … If you look at a kid like Courtney Williams and what she has done statistically from a points standpoint, an assists standpoint, a rebounds standpoint and where she is projected to go in the (WNBA) draft, a lot more people should know who Courtney Williams is, and a lot more people should know who Victoria Vivians is.
“I think Alisia is a player who will be very intriguing to WNBA teams because of how well she rebounds and rebounds out of her area. She does an incredible job with multiple efforts. I think she does something a lot of people don’t like to do. If you look at her double-doubles she is a workhorse. Both of those kids have been tremendous, and both have a very bright future.”
But USF is more than just Williams and Jenkins. The Bulls return all five starters from a team that went 27-8 (15-3 AAC) last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it lost to Louisville in Tampa, Florida. USF defeated LSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament in front of 5,560 fans in the Sun Dome.
The trip to the NCAA tournament was the team’s second in the last three years. In 2013-14, USF, which won 23 games, used a 3-pointer by Williams at the buzzer to beat MSU 60-58 in the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. In 2012-13, USF won 22 games and lost to California in overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Cal went on to play in the Final Four.
USF is coming off a 68-46 victory against Oklahoma State on Dec. 20 in Tampa, Florida. Fernandez said he liked the direction his team was heading and how it had rebounded from all of the attention it attracted early in the season. He said he didn’t think his players handled the attention and the expectations that accompanied being a top-25 program. As a result, he said the team received a “wake-up call” in a loss to a “hungry” St. John’s team on the road. Since then, though, Fernandez feels the Bulls have made a bigger commitment to the defensive end, which he feels will play a big role in the team’s success.
Fernandez also believes a trip the women’s basketball team took to Spain in August with the USF men’s basketball team in August helped it grow closer. Traveling abroad is something Fernandez and his coaches are used to. This year’s team has three players from Spain as well as players from Portugal, Denmark, Latvia, and Kenya. Past teams have had players from Sweden, Ukraine, Australia, and Finland.
Fernandez said he travels every summer in an effort to find foreign players who are interested in playing basketball in the United States. He compares many of the top players he sees in Europe to “top-50 players” in the U.S. He said many of those highly ranked players in the U.S. might not know about USF, so he and his staff have found good fortune building their program going the international route.
“The international route has been beneficial to us because we have had success developing international players, so when they go back home and play professionally or play with their national teams, they have done well,” Fernandez said. “I think our style of play also has been attractive to them.”
Fernandez hopes this year’s team can help USF build its postseason resume. With an offense that is averaging 75 points per game and a defense that is holding opponents to less than 55 ppg. in its last four matchups, USF looks to have what it takes to attract attention in today’s nationally ranked showdown.
“I think our game probably should have been the night game,” Fernandez said. “Jacksonville is about two-and-a-half hours from us, so hopefully it is well attended because people will get an opportunity to see two really good basketball teams. I am excited.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.