It’s been 20 years since the University of San Francisco last made the NCAA Tournament. Since then, they’ve made the NIT twice, the CIT once, made the CBI three times — reaching the finals last season — and have been able to crack a persistent top three of the West Coast Conference: BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga just once, in 2014.
Success has not come easily on the Hilltop. Neither has consistency. The last time the Dons started a season 9-1 — as they have this year — was in 1999.
“I felt like, yeah, we could be 9-1,” said head coach Kyle Smith, “but I’m surprised that we’ve been to really distance ourselves in-game.”
Even as San Francisco pulled ahead by 25 with three minutes to go in a 85-63 win over visiting Eastern Washington on Thursday night, fifth-year senior point guard Frankie Ferrari was pushing, barking orders from the corner. He was directing traffic. Even after an 11-0 burst out of the locker room got the Dons over a first-half funk, he was demanding perfection.
“That’s just how I’m built,” said Ferrari, who had a game-high 15 points and six assists. “I never stop. I never take plays off. I’ve only got 25, 26, 27 games left, whatever, here, so I don’t take any minute for granted.”
In Smith’s third year as head coach, he has a veteran team with players who know their roles, and a point guard in whom he sees a not insignificant amount of himself when he played. It doesn’t hurt that Ferrari ranks fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and 21st in the nation in assists per game.
“I think we’re on the same page all the time,” Ferrari said. “He’ll have to get on me once in a while and straighten me out, because I am a little crazy, but we’re on the same page. I’m just always on, never off, and I’m very competitive. Sometimes, too competitive.”
Ferrari’s drive has been one of the reasons the Dons have been the picture of consistency this season. Senior forward Nate Renfro said Ferrari is “very” demanding.
“He gets on me a lot,” Renfro said. “Sometimes we bump heads because of it, because I’m a competitor as well, just in a little bit of a different way. Sometimes he gets on me a little bit, and then he just comes back with, ‘I love you.’ I’m like, ‘OK, OK, we’re good now.'”
Each night, Ferrari will dish out about seven assists and hit a couple clutch three’s. Charles Minlend will leave a few shots to be desired from the field, but he’ll score 15 to 17 points and shoot over 75 percent from the free throw line. Jordan Ratinho will do his best Stephen Curry impression. Jamaree Bouyea will get points in transition.
“I think they know each other pretty well,” Smith said. “The core of this group’s been together since we went to France, two and a half years ago, when they were young. In a good program, you have guys that you grow with a little bit, and now, I think the leadership’s good, and they’re paving the way. The leaders should be Charles and Jordan moving forward, and that’s what happens when you have a program.”
While San Francisco, ranked No. 21 in the NET, has punished teams in the lower quarter of the ratings, with seven wins of 18 points or more coming into Thursday, the Eagles came in at 1-6, ranked No. 298 in the NET. Nevertheless, because the Dons couldn’t find that easy, consistent rhythm, Eastern Washington managed to hang around until very late in the first half, holding the lead for more than five minutes and keeping the game tied for another 4:10.
“In the first half, we were a little stagnant on offense and defense,” Renfro said. “We weren’t getting the stops that we normally get.”
The game got tense enough that Ferrari got called for a technical for using a bit of colorful vocabulary after draining a 3-pointer in front of the Eagles’ bench to give the Dons a 24-21 lead.
“I got a little excited,” Ferrari said. “I probably shouldn’t have done it … Something was said from the bench, and I responded the wrong way. It happens. The guys responded and picked me up … No regrets.”
Smith sat Ferrari briefly without comment, and Ferrari knew why.
Then, a three by Ratinho (one of his two), a Ferrari lay-up and a Jamareer Bouyea kiss off the glass finally got the Dons in rhythm, before Ferrari finished off the opening stanza by stripping Ty Gibson on the baseline on the final possession of the half. That was the kick San Francisco needed.
In the second half, defense led to offense, as the Dons forced five straight empty possessions for the Eagles and got three turnovers, including a pair of steals from Renfro and a dead ball turnover on a five-second violation, en route to the 11-0 run and a 7-for-11 stretch from the field.
“We go by kills, which is three stops in a row,” said Renfro, who had 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. “We weren’t doing that in the first half. We had two in the first half, and then five in the second half. We just had to get back to what we do and what we know.”
Minlend, who finished with 14 points (5-of-11 from the field, 3-of-4 from the line) and seven boards, nailed a three on his first shot of the half, followed by a Renfro steal and dunk, and then a trio of a lay-ups by Lull, who twisted his ankle early in the first half to knock the Dons off their rhythm, but returned to record six points and pull down six rebounds, with two assists and a block in 12 minutes.
“He’s been playing a lot for us, and he’s been playing really well, actually played well against Cal, and he got back in there,” Smith said. “I jumped him a little at halftime. He wasn’t as sharp yesterday in practice. I said, ‘You might be hurt,’ and he responded big-time.”
After their 15-6 run to start the second half cooled, though, the Dons remained in control. A three by Remu Raitanen at the top of the arc with 10:45 to go gave the Dons their biggest lead yet of the night, at 18, and a three by center Matt McCarthy upped it to 19. Raitanen finished with 11 points, going 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in 16 minutes.
“You’ve got to prepare for all scenarios, but we’ve been able to separate and keep pushing it out,” Smith said.
Fans got their free popcorn — courtesy of Ferrari — and by the time the buzzer sounded, War Memorial Gym echoed with U-S-F chants, a first this season.
“I’ve been trying to get Frankie to reel it in, but that’s just not who he is,” Smith said. “That comes with a little success, too, and he’s an easy brand to market. Frankie Ferrari out of San Francisco. It’s tough to stop it.”
Where they Stand: The Dons, coming in at 8-1, were ranked No. 21 in the NCAA’s new RPI-replacement evaluation tool: NET. The only West Coast teams ranked ahead of them were Nevada (No. 8) and Gonzaga (No. 7).