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Can USF basketball return to March Madness?

USF point guard Khalil Shabazz (0) fends off Texas Southern forward Grayson Carter (25) during the first half of the Dons' 90-77 win over the Tigers in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

The 2021-22 San Francisco Dons men’s basketball team had the program’s most successful season this century, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 and rejuvenating interest both on campus and around the city.

Should the Dons return to March Madness this year, it would need to come without last year’s star and with a new head coach. Is such a feat possible?

On paper, early returns are promising. The Dons are 6-1 after an 89-80 road loss to Davidson, but some of their wins haven’t come with the style or grace that last season’s team played with.

Such growing pains are understandable, though. Barely 12 hours after the Dons were eliminated from the tournament by Murray State, head coach Todd Golden departed for an exponentially better salary at the University of Florida. That 92-87 overtime loss was also the final collegiate game for Jamaree Bouyea, a Seaside native who averaged 17.3 points per game and played sensational defense. Bouyea now plays for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the NBA G-League affiliate of the Miami Heat.

USF head coach Chris Gerlufsen patrols the sideline during the Dons' 90-77 win over Texas Southern in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

New head coach Chris Gerlufsen was promoted internally, creating a sense of continuity, and No. 2 scorer Khalil Shabazz ultimately returned after testing the waters in both the NBA Draft and the transfer portal, though he’s the only returning starter. Transfers Tyrell Roberts (Washington State) and Marcus Williams (Texas A&M) offer further skill at the guard positions, but the lack of familiarity has been evident in the Dons’ early games. In their season-opening win over Texas Southern, they committed 23 turnovers, and gave up 19 more three nights later against a lowly Cal Poly side.

What the Dons do have is depth, and lots of it. When Tracy native Isaiah Hawthorne and 7-foot-2 Ukrainian Volodymyr Markovetskyy see significant minutes, the Dons go 10 deep. Australian forward Josh Kunen and sharpshooting guard Julian Rishwain have joined the starting lineup after seeing significant minutes off the bench, and UC San Diego transfer Toni Rocak provides frontcourt experience.

“The beauty of our group is that we’re learning that we can win in different ways,” Gerlufsen said after a Nov. 16 win at Fresno State. “We’re learning to win with different combinations of guys, and I like that as a coach. I don’t think we’re scratching the surface in what we can be as a group yet.”

Zane Meeks, a versatile 6-foot-9 weapon who transferred in from Nevada before last season, can play all five positions, and Saba Gigiberia rounds out the rotation. Like Markovetskyy, Gigiberia is 7-2, and he hails from a former Soviet country. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and, funnily enough, played at Georgia Tech before coming to USF this year.

USF center Saba Gigiberia (5) celebrates his dunk during the second half of the Dons' 90-77 win over Texas Southern in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

Getting consistent production out of one of Markovetskyy or Gigiberia would fill an enormous hole for the Dons that was left after Yauhen Massalski used his final year of eligibility to help lead San Francisco to the tournament. A 6-foot-10 center from Belarus, Massalski transferred from conference foe San Diego and gave the Dons the interior presence they needed to beat the likes of BYU and Santa Clara.

While some of the Dons’ early issues should simply improve with further time and experience, one quick fix could come if Rishwain finds his shot. He made six of 13 attempts during the two-game Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City but is just 2-for-20 in USF’s other six games, a stark contrast from the 43% clip he shot from behind the arc last year. He had spent much of the 2021-22 season close to 50%.

“I know the basketball gods and the percentages have a way of working themselves out,” Gerlufsen said. “My thing with Julian is just to stay confident and shoot the right shots. I believe every time he shoots, it’s gonna go in. He’s gonna catch a rhythm here as long as he just stays the course.”

USF guard Julian Rishwain (2) dribbles during the second half of the Dons' 90-77 win over Texas Southern at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

Rishwain’s shooting slump has hurt, but Shabazz, Roberts and Williams have kept the 3-point-heavy Dons afloat. Meeks and Rocak offer versatility that allows Gerlufsen to slide them around the floor and test out different player combinations to keep the hot hand on the floor or match up with an opponent. Lately, Meeks has been the key, playing the third-most minutes on the team despite starting all six games on the bench.

Their margin for error is slim, though. Playing in a deep West Coast Conference that has strong outfits beyond the likes of usual contenders Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s means USF will have few opportunities to skate through conference play, and while the likes of San Diego and Pepperdine should help to significantly improve the conference’s depth this year, the WCC still doesn’t get the respect that conferences like the Pac-12 do. The conference has never received more than three NCAA bids despite ranking well in metrics that the selection committee uses, such as the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET ranking, which replaced the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in 2018.

Last year’s Dons went 12-6 in the WCC, and though they technically finished fourth by a half-game, they had a head-to-head sweep over third-place Santa Clara and rounded out their resume by picking up a second win over BYU in the conference tournament. The 2021-22 team also lost just two non-conference games, falling to Grand Canyon by a point and to mid-major power Loyola Chicago, the school of famed chaplain Sister Jean, in a game that the teams hastily scheduled at a neutral site after both had opponents postpone games in the wake of Covid outbreaks. That USF team also posted solid non-conference wins over Arizona State, Davidson, Fresno State, UAB and UNLV.

Neutral-site wins over Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley Conference) and Wichita State (American Athletic Conference) have helped both the Dons’ and the WCC’s overall standing, though Friday’s game against Davidson, from the Atlantic 10, was a missed opportunity to pile on.

USF’s next major test comes at Chase Center on Dec. 5 against Utah State, a game that technically qualifies as a neutral site despite being played just four miles from the Dons’ home. A Dec. 17 visit to UNLV will be a daunting task, as the Runnin’ Rebels are forcing over 20 turnovers per game this season. Arizona State visits the Hilltop four days later.

Roberts, Shabazz and company have the talent to get USF to the promised land, and any team that has two good guards can make a real tournament run. But this is a USF side that will need to mesh quickly in order to keep the momentum rolling on the Hilltop.