TAMPA — Each day before practice, South Florida players witness a tangible reminder of the program’s ultimate goal. Inside each locker, coaches placed the logo for the 2015 Women’s Final Four, which will be held on April 5 and 7 at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa.
“I think about it every day,” Bulls junior forward Alisia Jenkins said. “I see it and just say, ‘We’ve got to be there.
‘ That’s our dream.”
Some might call it an impossible dream.
Women’s college basketball, after all, has generally been a top-heavy sport, dominated by the likes of Connecticut and Tennessee, while sprinkling in a big-time presence from Baylor, Notre Dame and Stanford, among others.
Can that change?
Will it change?
|SOUTH FLORIDA’S PAST FIVE YEARS|
USF coach Jose Fernandez wouldn’t be shocked to see a few surprise teams headed to Tampa. UConn’s historic dominance notwithstanding, Fernandez thinks the competitive base has grown larger, making for a more wide-open NCAA tourney field.
Fernandez still remembers the 2012-13 season, when the Bulls lost a second-rounder in overtime against California. The Golden Bears then advanced to the Final Four.
“We could’ve been the George Mason of women’s basketball,” Fernandez said. “That could’ve been us. I understand in another time how [advancing to the Final Four] might have been a really tall order, but the parity in our sport is growing. Not to the point of the men’s game, maybe, but it’s definitely there a lot more than it has ever been.”
“I don’t think you count anybody out these days,” Bulls junior guard Courtney Williams said. “There are a lot of dangerous teams now. UConn, of course, that’s an incredible team, the No. 1 team in the country. The fact that they play in our league [American Athletic Conference] has to help us, because twice a year we can see what it takes to be the best. I think with that kind of competition, once we get to the tournament, anything can happen.”
Well, almost anything, according to ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former UConn All-American.
“It might come down to the teams that can stay out of UConn’s [regional] bracket,” Lobo said.
“Winning it all is realistic, I think, for just a few teams, obviously UConn being at the top of that list,” said ESPN analyst Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee player. “Getting to the Final Four, though, I could see that for 12 or 13 teams. And I’m not sure you could say something like that in a lot of years. There are a lot more really good teams out there.”
Even though it hasn’t produced a Final Four team since Tennessee’s national championship in 2008 — the last time the event was held in Tampa — the SEC looks like the deepest conference in America, with four teams ranked in the preseason top 11: No. 2 South Carolina, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 11 Kentucky.
“I just think everything’s neck and neck,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.
But everyone is shooting for UConn, where Geno Auriemma is beginning his 30th season. He has taken the Huskies to nine national championships. This season, UConn is seeking the first three-peat in program history.
“UConn is incredibly good, and I learn a lot just by playing against them,” USF’s Jenkins said. “But we want people to know that USF is here, too. We’re an up-and-coming team. We’re knocking on the door. We’re close to getting it done.”
Could Tampa see a Final Four shakeup?
“There’s definitely a tendency to just pencil in teams like UConn, Tennessee, Baylor and Stanford into the Final Four,” USF’s Fernandez said. “I think we need to do a better job of highlighting some of these other teams, because they are out there.”