Basketball is back and the 2012 USF women's basketball team is ready to get back to work. After a solid 19-16 (8-8) in 2011, including a trip to the WNIT, the Bulls are hoping for their second NCAA Tournament bid on 2013. Coach Jose Fernandez has a talented and senior-laden roster, a perfect combination to get the team to the promised land.
2011-12 was a challenging year for Coach Fernandez and the ladies. For starters, they were forced to play all their home games inside the Campus Recreation Center while the Sun Dome underwent its massive renovations. The team was also short-handed -- star player Andrea Smith, the leading scorer from the 2010-11 team, missed the entire season while recovering from ACL surgery. The team also missed top recruit Inga Orekhova for the first 15 games of the year due to NCAA transfer rules. Yet despite the early set-backs, they rose above on the strength of Jasmine Wynne and others to reach the third round of the WNIT, after winning just 12 games the year before. The Bulls held their own and showed fight and determination against the toughest teams in the Big East, including UConn, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Louisville.
>With eight seniors, this is the last chance this nucleus of players will be able to make a run to the postseason. This year's roster is filled with experience and ready to win, raising the expectation level for the program. Wynne graduated, and they lost rising guard Shalethia Stringfield to an ACL injury over the summer, but the Bulls return Andrea Smith and Inga Orekhova, who scored 13 points a game last season. The team also returns Caitlin Rowe and Akila McDonald, both 6'4" athletes that can crash the boards, along with Tahira Johnson, who seemed to battle for every loose ball on the court. USF also adds a talented recruiting class highlighted by guard Courtney Williams (who reminds Fernandez of former star Shantia Grace) and point guard Laura Marco Canedo from Spain. Both have the ability to make a big impact during their freshmen years.
The Big East is one of the toughest conferences in women's basketball. UConn and Notre Dame are in the sport's elite, and Georgetown, Louisville, and others are annual NCAA Tournament participants The Bulls historically have not been able to break through against the power programs, but this group has the firepower to make it happen. With Orekhova and her shooting ability, and the driving and attack style of Andrea Smith now that she is healthy, the Bulls offense could have a historic season. Add in the solid role players and experience with the seniors, the team should be able to make some noise, notch around 17 to 20 wins and make a postseason tournament, whether it is WNIT or hopefully the big dance.
As we get ready for Saturday's season opener, let's take a look at the group of ladies that will be going into battle this season with Coach Fernandez:
Sasha Bernard - 5'6"- Senior - Guard - Delray Beach, FL (Atlantic HS)
Bernard, who originally started her career with Indiana, appeared in 29 games, starting nine and averaging 4.1 points per game (shooting 41%) and two rebounds per game. Smith also had 41 steals, 66 assists, and two blocked shots. Bernard was a solid role player for the Bulls, but she tore her ACL in the Big East tournament and will be very limited to start next season. Although she's been cleared by the USF medical staff, Coach Fernandez she could miss the first first few weeks as she is carefully worked back into the lineup,
Tiffany Conner - 5'9" - Senior - Forward - Teaneck, NJ (Teaneck HS)
Conner appeared in 33 games last season, starting in 15 of them. She only averaged 4.5 points per game, but made an impact on the boards with 5.9 rebounds per game, and added 69 assists and 10 blocks. She is a bit undersized playing the wing, but is fearless on the glass and fights and stays active in the low post battling for the rebounds. Conner won't score in double figures, but she does all the small things, never gives up on a possession and allows open looks for the other shooters. She is a key player this season for the Bulls.
Aleshia Flowers - 6'1" - Senior - Forward - Converse, TX (Judson HS)
Flowers appeared in 25 games as a reserve and played sparingly, totaling 25 points, 9 steals, and 28 total rebounds. With Johnson and Conner taking over the wing positions and the smaller lineups that Fernandez likes to run, Flowers will see limited playing time this season off the bench. But she is another senior leader, offers good size, and will be key late in games if the team is in foul trouble.
Alisia Jenkins - 6'1" - SF - Freshman - Statesboro, GA (Statesboro HS) Jenkins is a skilled player and she will be a key player backing up Tahira Johnson and others down in the post. Jenkins averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds a game during her and scored over 1000 points in her high school career. She is a very athletic player that can finish on the glass and is not afraid to put her body against a defender, bringing a tough mental edge to the defense. Like at the guard position, the Bulls have a lot of senior depth, so her playing time might be limited, but she will get in there and will be a key for the future of the team.
Tahira Johnson - 6'1" - Senior - Forward - Cambria Heights, NY (Christ the King HS)
Johnson played in 33 games last year with 15 starts, averaging 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, and chipping in 19 total steals and 12 blocks. Tahira emerged late in the season as a physical rebounder off the wing, crashing the boards against taller players. She's another of the seniors dotting the USF roster and should be a contributor this season.
Micah Kroll - 5'8" - Freshman - Guard - Tampa, FL (Tampa Catholic HS)
Kroll joined the Bulls as a walk-on after serving as a team captain and averaging 18.5 points per game in her senior year for the Crusaders. During her prep career, Kroll amassed 1537 total points, including 237 three pointers, 1029 rebounds, and 303 steals.
Laura Marco Canedo - 5'8" - Freshman - Point guard - Salamanca, Spain
Canedo is probably one of the more intriguing signings for the Bulls, a pure point guard that has a great standing relationship with Fernandez (who has been recruiting her for a few years now). She has a lot of international experiencem and looks to set up others rather than taking her own shots. It will be interesting to see how Fernandez mixes Canedo into the game. With so many guards on the roster, it will be hard to figure out where she fits in the rotation. But with Bernard (who ran some point last season) recovering from ACL surgery, Canedo could fill that position and help set up the shooters like Andrea Smith and Inga Orekhova. To me, she reminds me of Jazmine Sepulveda, who was a great player at the point just a few years ago for the Bulls. If she is anything like Sepulveda, the Bulls have a powerful weapon for the future.
Akila McDonald - 6'4" - Junior - Center - Decatur, GA (Columbia HS)
McDonald made her presence felt last season for the Bulls, becoming a solid rebounder and defender in the paint. She played in 31 games (13 starts) and averaged 4 points per game on 52% shooting and adding 3.5 rebounds per game. Akila also had five assists, 36 blocks, and 10 steals. Coach Fernandez likes to run an up-tempo style of offense, but needs solid players with size in the paint to rebound and get the tough baskets, especially in Big East play. McDonald's 6'4" frame will make her a key to this year's team, whether she starts or comes off the bench.
Shavontae Naylor - 5'9" - SG - Freshman - Atlanta, GA (Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy)
Naylor, out of Atlanta, Georgia, is a tall, athletic wing player that brings a great mid-range game and the ability to get to the rim, but she will need some time to develop her 3-point range. Shavontae is behind a number of seniors on the depth chart, so she will be played sparingly this season, but as a key player in the future, look for Fernandez to get her on the court,
Inga Orekhova - 6'2" - Junior - Guard - Sevastapol, Ukraine
Orekhova missed the first 15 games of last season because of NCAA transfer rules, but started the last 20 games after that and became the team's second-leading scorer with 13 points per game, including 36% shooting from three-point range. Orekhova also chipped in 24 rebounds per game, 26 assists, 20 blocks, and 31 steals. Orekhova is a big time shooter and lives at the 3-point line, and although she struggled from outside at times, she was still able to create off the dribble and get inside the arc for easier baskets. The Bulls will rely on her to be a scoring leader, and if she improves just a few percent points in her shooting percentage, she could have a monster season.
Caitlin Rowe - 6'4" - Senior - Center - Canberra, Australia (Gulf Coast C.C.) (Lake Gimidera)
Rowe came over to the Bulls from Gulf Coast C.C. (home of the Smith sisters) and made a solid impact in her first season. She played in all 35 games (started 16 of them) and averaged 5.7 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game. She also added 18 assists, 36 blocks, and 21 steals. Rowe, like McDonald, is a presence in the post for the Bulls, and contributes on offense but is primarily a defensive asset. Fernandez is lucky to have two skilled, tall players that can get on the court and make instant impacts on defense and help crash the boards. Look for Rowe to have another solid season in her senior year.
Kaneisha Saunders - 5'7" - Senior - Guard - Delray Beach, FL (Atlantic HS)
Saunders became a consistent shooter and distributor for the Bulls last season. She averaged 9.0 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, led the team with 91 assists, and added five blocks and 37 steals. Saunders' scoring and ball distribution made her valuable last season, and it will be interesting to see how much playing time she gets this season with the return of Andrea Smith to the court. Regardless of whether she starts or comes off the bench, Kaneisha will be back to make an impact for the Bulls.
Andrea Smith - 5'8" - Senior - Guard - (Gulf Coast C.C.) (Lake Gibson HS)
Smith missed the entire 2011-12 season while recovering from an ACL injury she suffered in the 2011 Big East tournament. Andrea was granted a 6th year of eligibility, and could go out with a bang this season. Back in 2010-11, Smith led the team with 16.3 points a game (third in the Big East) and raised her scoring average to 17.6 points per game in league play. Of course, the main questions with Smith will be how healthy she is and how ready for basketball she will be. Her knee should be at 100%, but the team will have to figure how rusty she is after missing a full season. She may come off the bench at first, but expect her to appear in the starting lineup pretty quickly. She and Orekhova make for a solid one-two scoring punch.
Andrell Smith - 5'8" - Senior - Guard - (Gulf Coast C.C.) (Lake Gibson HS)
Smith, the twin sister of Andrea, played in all 35 games and started 18 of them. Andrell averaged 8.3 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game, added 44 assists, 3 blocks and 38 steals on the season, doing a bit in all phases of the game. Her versatility in all aspects of the game will make her valuable in whatever role she plays for the team this season.
Shalethia Stringfield - 5'6" - Sophomore - Guard - Jacksonville, FL (Potters House Christian Academy)
Stringfield played in all but one game last year as a freshman, starting 11 and averaging 3.4 points and 1.5 rebounds per game. She added added 32 assists, 4 blocks, and 19 steals in limited playing time. She was a contributor late in the season off the bench, but unfortunately Shalethia tore her ACL just a few weeks ago and will miss the entire season. If there's a silver lining to the injury, it's that she'll have a much better opportunity to play in 2013-14 after this large crop of seniors graduates.
Courtney Williams - 5'8" - Freshman - Guard - Folkston, GA (Charlton County HS)
Williams was a big-time prep scorer and will be a huge addition for the Bulls both now and into the future. Last season, Williams averaged 27.5 points per game, 12 rebounds a game, and 7 assists, simply staggering numbers at the high school level. She can get her own shot, run the court, and drive and dish for teammates. Coach Fernandez has mentioned she reminds him of Shantia Grace from just a few years ago. Grace, a smaller guard, could attack and drive and pull up from anywhere on the court. If Williams lives up to the hype, the Bulls could have another huge weapon for the future. The starting backcourt is pretty set with Smith and Orekhova, but Williams will get on the court and make a big impact.