Cassius Marsh played in every game since the 49ers picked him up during the 2017 season. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

After rough start, USF aims to find stability, postseason berth

As the University of San Francisco embarks on the second half of the West Coast Conference schedule, no one seems particularly inclined to address the elephant in the room.

A year after the Dons went 20-13 in head coach Kyle Smith’s debut season on the Hilltop, a flood of injuries have threatened to sink the team.

Three players have been concussed. Starting center Matt McCarthy has dealt with a pair of high-ankle sprains. Key reserve Chase Foster has also been limited by an ankle injury.

“And shoot,” Smith exclaimed. “The obvious one, Charles [Minlend].”

Minlend, the Dons’ only preseason all-conference selection, hasn’t played and won’t play this year, as he’s redshirting while recovering from labrum surgery.

Minlend was the first player Smith recruited to the Dons. Last year, the 6-foot-4 guard emerged as USF’s most promising player, averaging 10 points per game while consistently causing problems for and putting pressure on opposing defenses.

“He’s a very good player,” Smith said. “But it’s also a piece that we don’t have a lot of replicas of, as far as he’s the one guy that has had experience.”

Sitting in his usual seat along the baseline, Bill Cartwright, the three-time NBA champ, three-time WCC player of the year and current director of university initiatives, is a fixture at War Memorial Gym when the Dons take the floor.

Asked his assessment of his alma mater at the midseason mark, Cartwright immediately pointed out the absence of Minlend. In the void, younger Dons have seized the unanticipated opening.

“They started the year with probably their best player getting hurt — Charles Minlend,” Cartwright said. “But what that did is that gave an opportunity for the other guys to step up, in particular, Souley Boum.”

Boum, a former standout at Oakland Tech, rains 3-pointers and slashes into the lane (like Minlend).

With the Dons sitting at 12-10 overall (4-5 in WCC play) heading into Saturday’s daunting road matchup with Gonzaga, Boum is the team’s leading scorer (13.8 points per game).

He’s also just a freshman, prone to make the mistakes that come with inexperience — failing to secure a crucial defensive rebound here, losing focus amid an offensive possession there.

“A lot of newcomers have gotten experience,” Smith said. “I think we’ve finally settled in. It’s took a little longer than you’d like, as a coach.”

No one Don has stepped into Minlend’s shoes as the go-to guy. When it comes to determining a midseason MVP, the list is long and difficult to whittle down.

“There’s been moments for, really, six different guys that have played well,” Cartwright said, dodging the question.

That list of six includes Boum, Foster, McCarthy, redshirt junior Frankie Ferrari, junior Nate Renfro and sophomore Jordan Ratinho. In a season of searching for the right lineups and rotations — 11 different players are averaging double-digit minutes — foundational pieces of the program are taking shape.

“I think our backcourt’s been, lately — Frankie and Souley have been kind of dynamic — kind of carrying us,” Smith said.

Ferrari’s rise to prominence with the Dons is an intriguing storyline. The point guard played for the Dons during the 2014-2015 season under the old regime, transferred to Canada College but never played, then returned to Smith’s squad last season.

“It’s good to see the improvement in somebody like Frankie Ferrari — from where he was as a freshman to where he is now,” Smith said. “That’s great for our program.”

Ferrari, from Burlingame, is one of three starting Dons from the Bay Area. Boum hails from Oakland, and Ratinho is from Livermore.

Smith loves that local players are growing into key roles with the Dons.

“We need guys that want to be here,” the coach explained.

It’s fitting that the second half of conference play begins with a road swing through the Bay. The Dons visit St. Mary’s — No. 1 in the WCC and No. 16 in the AP poll — on Thursday. After that, they play Santa Clara, who also entered the weekend 4-5 in WCC action, on Saturday.

Smith hopes that the injuries, for the most part, are behind the Dons. Like always, the coach insists that he’s not big on goal setting, saying it’s all about the here and now. Still, the Dons do have a clear objective for the next month-plus of games.

“You’ve got to get used to playing in March — regardless of the tournament. You want to play after [the conference tournament]. That’s what good programs do is extend the season. So, we’re going to have to play well — really well — the last [eight] games to put ourselves in a position to do that.”

kbuscheck@sfexaminer.com

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