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