USF men look to turnaround season in WCC Tournament

After posting 21 wins last season, the most for the program in 32 years, expectations were high for the USF men’s basketball team. The Dons had finished tied for second in the West Coast Conference and earned a postseason trip to the NIT. There was increased depth at nearly every position and a wealth of experience returning for the current campaign.

And yet, this season has been a struggle, something USF coach Rex Walters readily admits.

“I didn’t do a really good job with expectations heading into the season,” Walters said. “We just didn’t handle that well. And when we got punched, we got punch-drunk, and we never recovered from that.”

Despite four- and five-game losing streaks in conference play, USF has rattled off four wins in its last five and heads into the WCC Tournament with a 13-17 record and the No. 8 seed after going 7-11 in the WCC. They will face ninth-seeded Pacific today at 6 p.m. in a first-round game in Las Vegas. The Dons defeated the Tigers on Saturday 65-55. A showdown with No. 1 seed Gonzaga awaits in the quarterfinals.

Tim Derksen, a 6-foot-3 junior guard averaging 12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists, credits greater defensive intensity, such a hallmark of last season, for the Dons’ recent surge.

“We’re trying to be really aggressive, and take teams out of what they do,” Derksen said. “That translates to offense for us. We want to make teams really work.”

Derksen is a player whom Walters can’t remember having a “bad effort” practice.

“Tim is very much a self-made player,” said Walters. “There’s a reason he’s our third-leading scorer this season, and there’s a reason why there will be a big-time argument that he’s our most valuable player. It’s his work ethic — how hard he goes at it every day. He’s had a heckuva year for us, and he’s a big reason we’ve had success of late.”

Added Derksen, who excelled as a sixth man last season before becoming a starter in 2014-15: “You have to fall into your role. Once you develop into that role, like some of us were able to do last year, you can start being successful in playing to the best of your ability. We’re getting closer to that. Obviously, that is difficult to do at the beginning of the season.”

Walters has settled upon a seven- to eight-man rotation filled with players with multiple years of experience in the program. One of them is 6-9 swingman Mark Tollefsen (13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds), who was just named second-team All-WCC. Point guard Devin Watson, named to the All-Freshman team, was named a starter in midseason and has come on strong of late.

“Those seven or eight guys are playing some good basketball defensively,” Walters said. “They’re much more used to their roles and their responsibilities, now.”

Said Derksen: “We’re coming together at the right time. We’ve learned a lot this season, we’ve grown up a lot and we’ve been battle-tested. We’re finding ways to win. We’re more together as a team, because of those tests we faced early on.”

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