Of all the times to have the video projector fail, it would of course be during the prep for UConn.
After an 82-59 pasting of SMU on Wednesday, USF Women's Basketball had their NCAA-mandated day off on Thursday. That of course applies to only the players; the coaches, administrators, video coordinators, and team managers still were in the Muma Center getting ready for the 15th meeting between the Bulls and nine-time national champions.
But this one is different: what is likely the best USF team ever is taking on a UConn side that's still incredibly dominant, but maybe not as dominant as those teams of Bird, Taurasi, Lobo, Moore, & Cash.
This Huskies edition lost their opener against Stanford, and seem to have less depth. They're still possibly the best basketball team in the country, but when you're UConn you're often only compared to the teams in your own record book. It's a completely unfair burden to Breanna Stewart and the two-time defending champs, but an eyebrow gets raised when UConn isn't ranked #1. Right now South Carolina is ahead of them, and something seems to be missing from this team.
The 2014-15 Bulls are #22 in the RPI, 14-3 overall, 4-0 in conference play, and on an eight-game winning streak. But it's the way they've dismantled opponents of late that gives them hope against The Dynasty. The skill sets of USF's players fit together like a jigsaw puzzle of a beautiful landscape portrait.
The largest piece is their lightning-quick guard that can create her own shot as well as any player in America. Courtney Williams plays with a fearlessness that's contagious, and her incredible quickness sets up so much of what the Bulls do. Alisia Jenkins is the 12th best rebounder in college basketball at 11.3 per game, which makes zero sense when you look at her. She's tall but not the tallest, big but not the biggest, but she might have the best motor of anyone in college basketball. Katelyn Weber isn't an offensive force, but at 6'5 she can protect the rim while the other four Bulls on the court can fly around and create havoc defensively.
And then there's the shooters: Tamara Taylor, Maria Jespersen, Laura Ferreira, Shalethia Stringfield, Ariadna Pujol, and their friends. This team operates under one simple rule: If you're open from three, take it. In transition? Take it. Off floppy action? Shoot. Ball reversal? Rise and fire.
USF does things differently than most women's teams with a system that fits more of an fast-tempo NBA style. The help on defense is often inverted, so the defender running at the corner three comes from the post, not the perimeter. A baseline drive might get closed down with both a post and a guard, and another guard might come to help on the opposite block. USF interchanges most of their guards and forwards liberally, unafraid to switch assignments defensively. Bigs will get matched up on smalls sometimes, but those smalls know they will get help from unusual angles when it happens.
It makes USF difficult to prepare for, and entertaining to watch. But is it enough to win?
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When the projector in the women's team film room isn't working on the Friday before heading to Storrs on Saturday for Sunday's game, it's certainly not a reason to panic. Everyone gets blamed for the failure; team managers, Paige Cashin for being tall enough to reach the projector mounted to the ceiling but for hitting the wrong button, and the invited media member in attendance.
The players get a scouting report when they walk-in, as assistant coach Jeff Osterman walks the players through the game plan. Each opposing player has about 8-10 bullet points that are read aloud by someone that might be guarding them.
* Bullet quick with the ball, she is always looking to blow by you, stay ready (Moriah Jefferson)
* Quick release off of pin down screen (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis)
* Sprints the floor for lay up or wing pull up. Plays and scores for inside/outside, will play 3,4,5 (Breanna Stewart)
Each players bullet points end in either "FOUL" or "DO NOT FOUL" depending on their ability to finish through contact and shoot free throws.
Not all of the bullets are positive:
* Poor on-ball defender - heavy, slow feet
* She ball watches and loses her man
* Does not always box out, go to glass hard
Note: we're leaving the names out of this as we agreed to embargo all information.
Coach Osterman moves to the back of the room and continues to throw out bits of knowledge about UConn. But as the projector failure enters multiple minutes with two team managers randomly hitting buttons like your grandmother on a new remote control, the conversation devolves into Trivia Crack scores (Coach O is beating several players right now, though Spainard Laura Ferreira plays in English), what's for dinner tonight, and the new shoes the team was sent by Under Armour for the matchup on ESPN2.
As a group USF is totally relaxed, and the mood in this scouting session could be for any directional school or community college just as easily as for The Dynasty. USF is 25th in the coaches poll, but still unranked by AP voters. All objective measures have the Bulls as clearly one of the best 25 teams in America, but they seem unfazed by the lack of national respect. They're still mad they couldn't close it out against Kentucky in the Virgin Islands over Thanksgiving weekend. Or giving up what should have been a win to St. John's at home. They're not just saying and doing the right things; they're actually living it.
Eventually video coordinator Tim Sylver is summoned from his cave of an office where he breaks down every second of tape on USF, their opponents, potential recruits, and everything else he can get his hands on 365 days a year. But when the projector problem even stumps their in-house expert, the team moves over to the film room on the men's side of the Muma Center. Once settled in to the exactly-similar digs across the hall, the first piece of tape is a clip of UConn's "chin action," a series USF is known to use themselves. The scorebug from the broadcast on the tape has UConn in the 60's, and SMU with less than 10 points. No one flinches or even mentions it.
After watching the tape with instructions about each player such as "don't leave her, and fully front" or "let her have that, keep her in front of you," it's off to weight training for an hour. When the Bulls come back at 2 p.m. for practice, they aren't just playing themselves.
As many top-flight women's teams do, USF practices against male undergraduates to help get ready. And these guys can really play. The running clock scrimmage isn't close as The Generals just can't miss from three today. When the biggest guy on the court, wearing #5 on his back to represent that he's standing in for UConn's center, steps back off a screen and drifts to the top of the key for a somewhat-contested three that's nothing but net, you know the ladies aren't coming back to make a game of it.
The Generals don't only run UConn's sets, but they also compete hard. They high-five each other after a nice play, call out screens, and box out on the glass hard. If any of them could dunk, they would. They don't hold back a scintilla.
Preparing against the men has steeled USF in so many ways: Courtney Williams gets an outlet pass in transition, and splits two Generals just over midcourt and makes a great pass to an open wing player spotting up for three. Laura Ferreira turns the corner on a pick-and-roll, and makes a perfect entry pass to her cutting screener. And much like a weighted donut on a baseball bat, Coach Fernandez feels if you can make these plays against men it'll be that much easier against other females.
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To USF, this is honestly just another game. But that doesn't mean they aren't confident. After the win over SMU Wednesday night, Courtney Williams was asked about the upcoming opponent, the national TV audience, and the lack of respect from poll voters USF has received all year. She wasn't shy.
"I definitely feel we can win. No doubt in my mind, I think we will beat them. For real. Because they're human just like us. I feel like people look at them and just be like... we all put in the same amount of time. We're in the gym putting in extra work just like they're in the gym putting in extra. I definitely think it's a mental thing with a lot of teams."
"We can beat anybody in the country."
Today they get a chance to show the world she's right.