University of San Francisco point guard Frankie Ferrari dribbles the ball up the court against Northern Arizona on Dec. 19, 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

USF Dons basketball head to UCSB for final non-conference tilt

With a pair of wins over Pac-12 teams — most recently a convincing nine-point victory over Stanford — to go along with a 3-1 record against 2017-18 NCAA Tournament teams, and with its only loss a four-point defeat to No. 21 Buffalo, the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team has its best chance in 20 years to make an NCAA Tournament.

The last time the Dons went dancing was before half of their roster was even born. Frankie Ferrari, USF’s senior point guard and the oldest player on the team, was only three.

“It’s big, it’s big,” Ferrari said last week. “We have a great group of guys, everyone’s on the same page, and the culture we’ve created is unique. All 14 guys, all 14 different personalities, coming in as one. I think it’s a great thing to be a part of.”

The Dons head to UCSB this Saturday at 12-1, with a chance to notch another signature win and get off to the best start in decades, surpassing the 1999-2000 team, which started 12-1, but lost four of its next five. They have their best chance to make the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-98 team, which needed to win six straight games to back into the Tournament.

That team, which finished 19-11, had a 4-7 start to West Coast Conference play, before crushing Loyola Marymount by 34 points, blowing out St. Mary’s 109-83 and easily dismissing San Diego 81-59. Those Dons then beat the Gaels again by 17 points in the first round of the conference tournament, edged Santa Clara by two and ripped Gonzaga 80-67 to earn a first-round date with Utah in the Tournament. They lost, 85-68.

“Compared to those two teams, this team is better,” said broadcaster Pat Olson. “This team has more elements. They’re deeper, they play loose. They’ve played a pretty representative schedule … This is my 28th year doing USF games, and heck, this may be the best team I’ve seen.”

The 1999-2000 team lost in the first round of the conference tournament, 63-48, to Santa Clara, and while nowadays, that team could have gone to the CBI or CIT, back then, there was nowhere for the 19-9 Dons to go, except home.

After last season, though, when San Francisco reached the finals of the CBI, head coach Kyle Smith told his seniors-to-be, “It’s NCAA or bust.”

“This team seems to have all the elements,” Olson said. “They have the senior point guard leadership, they’ve got two bigs in the middle, they’ve got a defending power forward in [senior Nate] Renfro, they’ve got a scorer in [Charles] Minlend, they’ve got a 3-point shooter in [Jordan] Ratinho. They really do seem to have all the pieces.”

The trip to the Thunderdome to face the 9-3 Gauchos will be San Francisco’s last chance before WCC play to polish up an already strong postseason résumé. After that, to earn an at-large bid, they’ll have to make noise against No. 7 Gonzaga and a strong Loyola Marymount team, as well as the conference’s established top tier in BYU and St. Mary’s, both of which have had middling starts, both at 8-6.

They have the tools to do it. The Dons are No.43 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, in large part thanks to Ferrari, who is No. 6 in the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio (4.87) and 22nd in assists per game (6.3). Their dynamic scorer, redshirt sophomore Minlend Jr. is averaging 15.0 ppg and 5.5 rpg. They have a pair of low-post bangers in senior Matt McCarthy (7.2 rpg) and junior Jimbo Lull (6.2 rpg), as well as junior 3-point sniper Ratinho (41.5 percent from three), who is climbing up the program’s all-time list for 3-point field goals. They also have a dynamic young athlete in sophomore Jamaree Bouyea. Senior forward Nate Renfro rounds out the package, averaging 5.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists per game.

“They got the right guy at point guard, they’ve got the senior that’s like our second coach,” Olson said. “I think that’s something that makes this team a little bit special, is having that senior guy at point guard. You see him on the court, he’s ordering everyone around.”

The Dons already have double-digits wins over Fullerton, LIU-Brooklyn and Stephen F. Austin — all Tournament teams a year ago — and wins over both Cal and Stanford. San Francisco is currently seventh in the nation in scoring margin at +20.0 points. After de-
feating Northern Arizona by 16, the Dons have nine wins by 15 or more this season.

Joe Pasternack’s Gauchos won 23 games in 2017-18, and barely missed out on being an NCAA Tournament team. They return one starter from that team, and this year, they’ve not faced a single team that was in the Tournament field last season. The Dons represent their first real chance to score a season-defining win.

Because of that, the Gauchos are dangerous. Pasternack was an assistant for the Golden Bears before becoming Sean Miller’s top lieutenant and top recruiter at Arizona, and he’s brought in top-flight recruits like guard Devearl Ramsey (11.7 ppg, 3.8 apg) and freshman forward Amadou Sow (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

Guard Ar’Mond Davis, a transfer from Alabama, is averaging 15.3 points per game to lead UCSB, and is one of four players averaging 10 points or more per game.

“This team is really focused,” Olson said. “They really want to win. I think there’ll be a lot of respect. They’re 9-3 and we’re playing them at their place, and they’re going to be ready. Based on what USF has done, we’ve kind of become the hunted for teams. They’re eyeballing us now, on their schedule, which is something a little bit different.”

For the first time since that 1999-2000 team, San Francisco has received votes in a major top-25 poll — one vote each in the AP and Coaches Polls — and has had at least one vote in one of those polls for the third straight week. The Dons are No. 25 in the NET ratings — the metric the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will use this season in lieu of the now-dead RPI — and have been in the top 25 in the NET virtually all season. While it’s not much, and, as Smith has said, there’s still a lot of basketball to play, but it’s a start. A historic start.

Since World War II, the Dons have started 12-1 or better just 10 times. Of the previous nine, eight have gone on to the postseason. Of those eight, seven advanced to the NCAA Tournament. The only team to miss the postseason was the 1999-2000 team.

“I just don’t see this team coming back to .500 in league, like that 99-2000 team,” Olson said. “I just see this team as a team that’s really kind of got it together.”

USF faces Santa Barbara at The Thunderdome in Santa Barbara, at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on 1550-AM The Game on terrestrial radio. The game will be streamed on
BigWest.tv.

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