Frankie Ferrari ducks under a UC Santa Barbara defender on Dec. 29, 2019, in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

Frankie Ferrari, USF Dons ready for one last dance

San Francisco Dons basketball, PG Frankie Ferrari await postseason fate after disappointing end

Were it not for a torn ACL, Frankie Ferrari may not be the University of San Francisco’s point guard, senior captain, and barking, demanding, coach on the court.

After seeing little playing time as a freshman under then-head coach Rex Walters, Ferrari — who grew up going to Dons games, and assisting as a ball boy — decided to head to Cañada College. He began practicing with the Colts, and even played in a JuCo showcase. Then, one of the top JuCo wings in the country — Crisshawn Clark — tore his ACL for the second time in two years during a visit to Oregon.

Without Clark, Cañada, and therefore Ferrari, would be invisible. So, he decided to take the year off to re-make his body. Six months later, he got a phone call from Walters’ replacement, newly-hired Kyle Smith, asking him to come back.

This season as a fifth-year senior, Ferrari played through illness and a bone bruise to guide the Dons to their best season in 20 years. Still, on Selection Sunday it almost certainly is not enough for them to get to their first NCAA Tournament in 21 years (the NIT is still very much a possibility). With Ferrari, the Dons have taken the biggest, most necessary step in Smith’s third year: Becoming relevant in the national conversation. Next season, they’ll have to take the next step without him.

“When I left the first time, it was really heartbreaking for me and for my family to leave the community,” Ferrari said. “For them to accept me back the way they did, and for us to make that push and take that next step like we did the last three years, has been awesome.”

After being named All-West Coast Conference as a junior, Ferrari repeated the feat after leading his team in points (14.7 ppg), assists (34th in the nation with 5.5 apg) and steals (1.6 ppg) and 3-point shooting among players with 70 or more attempts (40.1 percent). His 2.77 assist-to-turnover ratio is 18th in the nation.

Before every game this season, Smith and his team broke the huddle by saying, “Respect everyone, fear no one, let’s go compete.” Ferrari, Smith said, is the embodiment of that mantra.

“His sophomore year, he was in and out of the lineup, beginning of his junior year he still wasn’t there, and when I finally committed to him, it helped him,” Smith said on Friday. “This year, he’s obviously led the way.”

This season, San Francisco (21-10) reflected its point guard, once considered too small and too slow to compete at the Division I level — while at Cañada, he was aiming for a Big Sky or Big West spot. A team that, in Smith’s first two seasons, was aiming for a winning record and maybe a lower-level postseason berth in the College Basketball Invitational Tournament, or the CollegeInsider Tournament, started 2018 with seven straight wins, and went 12-1 over their first 13. The Dons’ only loss was to then-No. 21 Buffalo.

San Francisco cracked the top 40 in the NET — the NCAA’s new evaluation tool to replace the much-maligned RPI — and defeated regional rival St. Mary’s, then took No. 1 Gonzaga to the brink at home, earning well-deserved buzz as an NCAA Tournament dark horse.

“You’ve got to get in the arena, and we actually were in the arena, where people were discussing us as a possible at-large team,” Smith said. “There’s no way to avoid it. I can’t hide these guys, with social media and that stuff. The league is the best it’s been in 15 years. We were doing great.”

Then came a resounding loss on the road at St. Mary’s. After that, a blow-out loss in Spokane to the Bulldogs. The final week of the season, Ferrari fought through the bone bruise on the outside of his foot, limiting his practice time so it wouldn’t turn into a stress fracture that would cost him games.

“You only get a certain amount of games in college, and you can rest after that, so that was my mindset,” Ferrari said.

At the same time, Matt McCarthy, Jimbo Lull and Jamaree Bouyea came down with the flu.

After beating BYU on the road, the Dons lost their final three games of the regular season, to middling Santa Clara, in overtime to San Diego (for the second time in as many meetings) and then to Loyola Marymount.

“The pressure of playing in the league, and in the hunt, and having to win, and I think when we beat BYU at BYU, I think we were like, ‘Let’s go,’ and we hit the gas, and [nothing was there],” Smith said. “We know this: We’re not a team that can just hit the switch. We’re not that team.”

Not yet, at least. Instead of being the hunters, they became the hunted, and dealt with that longer and later than they had in recent memory. San Francisco hadn’t been in the conversation — in the arena — this late in the season in decades. The pressure and the potential Tournament bid ground on the Dons.

Dynamic scorer Charles Minlend — San Francisco’s other All-WCC selection who led the Dons in scoring for much of the season — saw his jump shot fall flat, going 3-for-21 in the final four games of the regular season.

After a stunning loss to Pepperdine in the WCC Tournament quarterfinals — Minlend went 7-of-17 from the field and 1-of-8 from three — the team was, in Smith’s words, “a little deflated.”

You know when you have a guy who’s checked out or there’s friction within your team. There’s not that, so we were scratching our heads a little bit. I think probably a little fatigue, late in the season, and not being there.”

Before the season, Smith told his team: “Don’t make [spring break] plans. We plan to be playing in something. Even if we’re not, we’ll be practicing.”

When the team returned home from the Tournament in Las Vegas, Smith gave the team two days off to regroup.

“We really needed it,” Ferrari said. “We look a little bit brighter.”

With the late-season swoon likely knocking the Dons out of any consideration for the NCAA Tournament — especially with No.1 Gonzaga a lock, and the Gaels receiving an automatic bid for defeating the Bulldogs in the conference title game — the NIT is likely the only invite San Francisco would accept.

With conference tournaments set to conclude on Sunday, the NIT is mandated to take all regular-season conference champions who did not win their conference’s automatic bids via winning conference tournaments. Excluding regular-season champs who will likely make the Tournament (Gonzaga, Washington, Texas Tech and Virginia), there are so far nine teams that would be automatic invites to the NIT out of a field of 32, with four more tournaments yet to conclude.

San Francisco, which finished fourth in the WCC, is now 66th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and 60 in the College Basketball Power Index. In the last three NITs, teams with analogous rankings were high seeds in the tournament. In 2018, Utah had a BPI of 68 and a KenPom rating of 58, and earned a No. 2 seed. In 2017, Iowa had a BPI of 79 and a KenPom rating of 71, and was a No. 1 seed. In 2016, Princeton had a BPI of 54 and a KenPom of 70, and were a No. 6 seed.

“We’re optimistic,” Ferrari said. “We hear the talks about if we get in the NIT, and if we’re not. I obviously think we deserve to, and I think our coaching staff and our team does, as well, but we have to wait and see. We’re just looking for the next game, and I would like to play again. Obviously, don’t want to have your last game be a loss, like we did in Vegas. We’ll see. We’re optimistic.”

The Future

Where San Francisco goes from this season could depend on what kind of momentum they can get in the postseason, and what youngsters — Dzmitry Ryuny and Remu Raitanen, in particular — can get meaningful minutes in the postseason. Ryuny has been limited with injury, but in his last three games, he’s shot 10-for-15 from the field and 7-for-11 from three.

The Dons are not only losing Ferrari (meaning Jamaree Bouyea or the redshirting Central Washington transfer Khalil Shabazz will have to take over at the point), but also Matt McCarthy and Nate Renfro. Renfro is a driver, more than a shooter, so swapping him out for either Ryuny or Raitanen will give San Francisco a more varied scoring attack, and take shooting pressure off of Minlend and give Jordan Ratinho more room to chase the program’s all-time 3-point shooting record.

Losing post McCarthy will hamper inside production, but the Dons haven’t really focused their attack on the post under Smith. Plus, San Francisco will be bringing in rangey signee Josh Kunen, a Sudanese immigrant by way of Australia.

Ultimately, the Dons did not fulfill its early season promise this season, but in a WCC as good as it’s been in 15 years, they made enough noise that next season, they won’t be surprising anyone. Next year, just being in the conversation won’t be enough. Until then, though, this team will settle for one of college basketball’s secondary postseason tournaments, and make the most of what they have. It’s what they’ve done since Smith arrived.

“Whatever happened,” Ferrari said, “this experience has been incredible — the fact that I’ve been able to create this family here … I felt like this was home, and the opportunity was something I couldn’t pass up. This is where I want to be, and call it my alma mater.”

Moving forward, Ferrari is confident that his family can take the next step.

The NCAA Selection Sunday Show will be broadcast on CBS at 3 p.m. Pacific on Sunday. San Francisco’s fate will be known sometime soon after.

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