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Bernstein: NCAA Tournament is in reach for USF Dons basketball

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San Francisco guard Charles Minlend Jr. (14) drives past Kyle Allman Jr. (0) of Cal State Fullerton. The Dons beat the Titans, a 2017 NCAA Tournament team, 68-54, on Dec. 16, 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

A few weeks after wrapping up the 2017-18 season, University of San Francisco head men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith challenged his team’s leaders to make the most of their offseason training in order to improve upon their 22-17 record the next campaign.

Some competed in summer leagues like the San Francisco Pro-Am. Others worked on their physiques by navigating the sand dunes at Ocean Beach. Seven-foot center Jimbo Lull spent his time across the country completing a series of obscure, muscle-building tasks.

“He was running the mountains in New Hampshire, carrying logs around, I’m not exactly sure,” Smith said with a laugh. “But he really came back better.”

So did most of the Dons’ roster, which has gained coherence and confidence in Smith’s third season. San Francisco (10-1) has brought buzz to The Hilltop after decades of mediocrity, and on Saturday they’ll host a much-anticipated showdown with Stanford.

Having already beaten Cal this year, the Dons are positioned to claim ownership of the Bay Area for the first time in recent memory. The last time San Francisco knocked off both the Bears and Stanford in the same season was 1978.

“It’s a big deal,” Smith said. “USF was a big part of the culture and landscape of basketball [historically], and I’m thankful that Stanford’s giving us this opportunity. But also I think we’re good, so it’s a good game for both programs.”

How good is San Francisco? Best case scenario, the Dons reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997-98. But for that to happen, an improved roster needs to keep up its positive momentum.

Five of the seven top scorers on the squad are upperclassmen, and none are freshmen. Led by guards Frankie Ferrari (12.5 points per game, 6.3 assists) and Charles Minlend (14.4 points per game, 5.5 rebounds), the Dons score almost 80 points per game and boast the 36th-best assist/turnover ratio in the nation.

San Francisco runs their post game through Lull, the New Hampshire workout guru whose improved conditioning has helped him play 17.4 minutes per game and set career highs across the board. He’s one of two 7-foot players in the West Coast Conference averaging at least 15 minutes per game.

Together, the Dons have rolled through nonconference play, their lone defeat coming in Belfast, Northern Ireland against No. 14 Buffalo.

“The culture we’ve created is pretty unique,” Ferrari said. “It’s a great thing to be a part of and it’s something to build on.”

The easiest way for San Francisco to make the NCAA Tournament is to win the West Coast Conference tournament, though that would likely require beating a top-15 Gonzaga program with Final Four ambitions.

The path to make an NCAA Tournament appearance without winning the WCC is murkier — but still possible.

While the Dons’ four-point neutral court loss to Buffalo on Dec. 1 was a missed chance at a resume-lifting victory, the close margin should be viewed as a positive mark by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Wins over Harvard, Stephen F. Austin and Cal are good-but-not-great results that could also provide a boost.

San Francisco needs a victory over Stanford this weekend, and that result paired with what should be blowouts over Northern Arizona and UC Santa Barbara would take the Dons to 13-1 entering WCC play.

That record compares favorably with at-large NCAA Tournament teams from last year like Nevada and Rhode Island, which are also from mid-major conferences. Nevada beat Rhode Island and Davidson in nonconference play last season but lost to the Dons. Rhode Island earned quality wins over Seton Hall and Providence but lost to Nevada, Alabama and Virginia.

San Francisco would also need to post a winning record in the WCC, as it did in 2016-17 during Smith’s first season at the helm, to start a conversation about its postseason contention. At least one regular-season win over Gonzaga would go a long way toward earning an at-large bid, but amassing enough wins against St. Mary’s, BYU and San Diego could do the job. After all, Nevada didn’t play a single ranked team in the Mountain West before earning a No. 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament last season.

It helps San Francisco that WCC leadership has pushed its member schools to schedule more difficult nonconference opponents in recent years, in the process lifting the league to a higher standard.

“The top of the league goes out and gets really good, high-quality nonconference opponents,” WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez said in November, “and then the bottom of the league with the scheduling mandate schedules a strong, competitive schedule that helps them grow or achieve whatever their objective is.”

Said Smith: “With Gonzaga’s success and what they’ve been doing as far as scheduling out of conference, I don’t see any way the University of San Francisco is going to get back in that space and be relevant if we’re not trying to compete with [tough nonconference] schools.”

There are plenty of challenges the Dons must overcome to make the NCAA Tournament, and even a small slip-up could cost them a shot at March Madness. As a mid-major program, the room for error is approximately a broom closet.

But in that meeting a couple weeks after last season, when Smith faced his veterans for a state-of-the-program talk, the coach made clear what he saw possible for the group.

“It’s NCAA or bust,” Smith remembers telling his soon-to-be-seniors.

Seven months later, that goal remains attainable.

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