Dons inch closer to madness

USF MBB vs SMC at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center. The team traveled to the Orleans Arena to play Gonzaga University in the West Coast Conference Semifinals after their victory over Brigham Young University in the Quarterfinals. PHOTO BY CHRIS M. LEUNG/DONS ATHLETICS

At USF’s War Memorial Gymnasium at the Sobrato Center, back-to-back national championships banners from six decades ago and seven retired jerseys, whose last addition was Bill Cartwright, sit alone as reminiscent memorabilia of the glory years of Dons basketball. 

The Dons bask in its historical past, and rightfully so when you have Bill Russell as an alum,  arguably the greatest winner in basketball history. However, the past is also a reminder that its status as a former “mid-major powerhouse” is a relic that only those from a generation or two ago can remember. USF might be part of an exclusive club in college basketball history of winning multiple titles, however, the Dons have not made the NCAA Tournament in 24 years. 

To put it in broader perspective, since its reinstatement in 1985, USF has only made the tournament once, in 1998, and have only had six 20-plus game winning seasons, including this year. But that is when it changes. 

The 2021-22 season of Dons basketball has been nothing short of historical. Though some might categorize it as hyperbole, the buzz surrounding the team cannot be denied. For the first time since the 1981-82 season, the Dons have won at least 24 games, and according to most college basketball experts, like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, USF will play in March Madness. 

USF’s resume for a tournament appearance was further solidified with another win against BYU last Saturday night in its WCC Tournament opener. After the game, Head Coach Todd Golden, who is in his third season with USF, said, “This isn’t a discussion about whether we’re in the tournament. It’s a discussion about whether we’re wearing home jerseys or not in the first round.”

This season’s success can be attributed to many factors. From Jamaree Bouyea’s decision to stay and opt for an additional fifth year as a graduate student, to a class of transfer students like Yauhen Massalski from San Diego and Patrick Tape from Duke, the program has seen a shift that shook the dynamics of the Dons. 

Assistant Coaches Michael Plank and Vinnie McGhee both agree that offensively and in rebounding, the additional big man presence of Massalski and Tape have served as game changers. “Adding size and ability to get on the offensive glass has been huge. We can leach off the bounce, we can beat you on the boards, when we’re clicking it makes us hard to beat,” Plank said. 

Additionally, it has also helped their defensive schemes. Averaging almost five blocks per game, the Dons defense transformed from primarily relying on speed to having a strong shot-blocking presence, according to McGhee. “The guards take up the slack from the bigs, and the bigs take up the slack for the guards at times and it’s kind of a mutually beneficial relationship,” Plank added. 

While the addition of short term players has served as a strength this season, Plank emphasized the importance of balancing the mix of the transfer portal with the introduction of younger players in maintaining the integrity of the team. “You gotta keep your culture, the expectations,” Plank said.“All those things that coach Golden’s set in place, you gotta keep those intact, and the only way to [do that] is bringing in freshmen and sophomores who can gradually keep it intact throughout their career at USF.” 

Bouyea and Shabazz, who Golden calls “the two best guards in the league,” stand as prime examples of upholding team expectations through commitment.  With both playing their entire college basketball careers at USF, the duo led the team in minutes, field goal points, 3-pointers, free throws, assists, and steals in their final year. A week ago, Bouyea was selected to his second straight All-WCC first team, while Shabazz was also named to his second straight All-WCC second team honor. 

“I think this season just shows people that hard work pays off. I think it helps us in a way, because it shows that once you’re locked all in with the team, things could work in your favor,” McGhee said. 

The hype at the Hilltop this year culminated in the Don’s final home game against Gonzaga Feb. 24. Though the Dons’ late surge fell short, the game itself gave War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center a glimpse of what it used to be in its heyday. Shabazz noticed it throughout the entire season. “I think the program’s really done a 360,” he said. “Just bringing a lot of buzz to the city, we got NBA players coming to watch our games, we got rappers, we got all types of different people who are excited to watch us play.” 

For Shabazz, there were early signs of an improved and much better team. “I think everybody on my team agrees that the first workout we had back in June…when everybody got on campus and we had that first little workout, that this team is gonna be really special.” 

The senior guard said there were improvements everywhere, something that included his head coach too. “I think last year we were kind of lacking in areas and even the year before we were lacking in areas but this year I feel like with TG [Golden] becoming a better coach…you can just kind of tell that we just had the energy and it was just on us to just really put it together and play for each other.” 

In recent weeks, the mantra of supporting each other became even more important as the team surrounded sophomore center Volodomyr Markovetskyy, a native Ukrainian. That has exemplified one of the reasons for Massalski’s decision to transfer to USF. “Because this place gave me the best sense of being a family and that could be seen right now because of our home conflicts and how USF is putting their hands around us and helping us to go through all this,” Massalski said.

USF MBB vs Gonzaga at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center. The men’s basketball team finished their season with 10 conference wins and 24 wins overall. PHOTO BY CHRIS M. LEUNG/DONS ATHLETICS

While Dons await Selection Sunday on March 13, USF is currently in Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament. Though they notched up a big win against the Cougars, USF fell short again after cutting a 24 point deficit against a well-rested Gonzaga, the projected top seeded team in the nation when the NCAA tournament begins next week. After the game, Golden brushed off the loss and said, “There are no moral victories, but at the end of the day, a 10-point loss to these guys is not the end of the world.”

It should be noted that Massalski did not play in the game after suffering an injury Saturday night. Averaging nearly a double-double this season with 13.5 points per game and 9.7 rebounds, Golden said the forward should be ready to play next week. 

This season has not only been historic for USF, but for the entire West Coast Conference. The WCC is projected to field three teams in the 68-team tournament, the most in its history. 

The Dons are confident they will be one of those teams, as USF now anxiously waits for Selection Sunday. The last time the Dons heard their name called on that day, Golden was 13 and none of today’s players were born. 

While USF will likely be underdogs when they enter the tournament, these Dons have surpassed all expectations this season and brought flashbacks of a winning past. Carrying that weight and success into next week, as Bouyea said, “You believe in the March madness magic a little bit.”

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