Dons try­ing to rise, shine in con­fer­ence

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - MEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW - By Steve Kroner Steve Kroner is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer.

Only once in the seven sea­sons since Brigham Young joined the WCC has a team other than Gon­zaga, St. Mary’s and BYU fin­ished in the top three of the con­fer­ence stand­ings.

USF made the lone break­through in 2013-14 as it tied BYU for sec­ond place, with St. Mary’s set­tling for fourth.

As the Dons be­gin their third sea­son un­der head coach Kyle Smith, they ap­pear to be the most likely chal­lenger to the Big Three.

“I think we are,” point guard Frankie Fer­rari said. “I think the core that we brought back is great. I think our lead­er­ship is good. I think we have all the pieces in terms of pass­ing, shoot­ing, re­bound­ing, bigs.”

Said Smith: “If we stay healthy, we’re go­ing to be pretty tough.”

USF fin­ished in a three-way tie for fourth in the WCC last sea­son, and the con­fer­ence head coaches picked the Dons to fin­ish fourth again this sea­son.

They re­turn six of the top eight scor­ers from a team that lost to North Texas in the CBI Fi­nals. The Dons en­joyed a sig­na­ture win over St. Mary’s late in the sea­son, and Smith be­lieves his team’s im­prove­ment down the stretch stemmed from his mid­sea­son de­ci­sion to make Fer­rari the undis­puted No. 1 point guard.

“We got good, he got good last year when we fi­nally com­mit­ted to him: ‘We need this guy, he’s got to come through’ — and he did,” Smith said.

Once Fer­rari en­tered the start­ing lineup for good in a Jan. 13 loss to Gon­zaga, he scored at least 13 points in 13 of the next 14 games. He put to­gether big per­for­mances in that win over St. Mary’s (20 points, seven as­sists) and in two vic­to­ries over Pa­cific (a com­bined 32 points and 21 as­sists).

Fer­rari, a Burlingame High alum who was a pre­sea­son All-WCC se­lec­tion, con­fi­dently or­ches­trates the Dons’ of­fense, which is sim­i­lar to St. Mary’s; Smith spent nearly a decade as an as­sis­tant to the Gaels’ Randy Ben­nett.

“Frankie’s just really smart within that sys­tem,” Santa Clara guard KJ Fea­gin said. “He really nav­i­gates well. He’s the hub of the wheel. … He picks his spots well within the of­fense.”

The Dons’ likely starters with Fer­rari are sopho­more guard Charles Min­lend, who red­shirted last sea­son be­cause of a shoul­der in­jury, ju­nior swing­man Jor­dan Rat­inho, se­nior for­ward Nate Ren­fro and 7-foot ju­nior cen­ter Jimbo Lull.

Lull started just once last sea­son and av­er­aged 4.3 points and three re­bounds in 31

games, but Smith be­lieves Lull has made sig­nif­i­cant progress in the off­sea­son.

Rat­inho, mean­while, might be USF’s most com­plete player. The De La Salle-Con­cord grad has led the Dons in min­utes, three-point­ers and three-point ac­cu­racy in each of the past two sea­sons.

Smith also typ­i­cally has Rat­inho guard the op­po­nent’s top perime­ter player.

“He’s just so un­emo­tional, flat­line out there, but he’s one of our tough­est guys,” Smith said.

Crack­ing the top three in the WCC is clearly a tough task. USF has a rep­re­sen­ta­tive non­con­fer­ence sched­ule that in­cludes three games with Pac-12 teams: home against Ari­zona State and Stan­ford, and at Cal.

Fer­rari was asked to pick a few ad­jec­tives to de­scribe the 2018-19 Dons.

His re­sponse: “I’d say ver­sa­tile, I’d say ex­pe­ri­enced and I’d say hun­gry — hun­gry to win.”

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

Kyle Smith, in his third sea­son as head coach of the Dons, says: “If we stay healthy, we’re go­ing to be pretty tough.”

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