In a state rich in basketball tradition, the best men's college team in California is San Francisco — and the Dons most likely won't make the NCAA Tournament.
Three days before Christmas, San Francisco did something it had not achieved in 30 years, sweep the Pac-12 Bay Area schools. In early December, the Dons completely dismantled Cal in Berkeley, 79-60. Just over two weeks later, and it was another convincing win, this time at home against Stanford, 74-65.
The two victories serving as a microcosm for a team and conference (West Coast Conference) on the rise amidst a declining power conference (Pac-12–thanks, Larry Scott). The Dons have experienced back-to-back 20-win seasons in head coach Kyle Smith's first two years in The City.
With just one out-of-conference game on the preseason slate remaining, the Dons have faced teams from across the mid-major landscape and defeated them all, except for a four-point loss to mid-major darling Buffalo. The two victories against the Pac-12 are the shining jewel on the team's resume as they try and seduce the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Is that enough, however?
While the Committee may be fickle, the numbers and rankings support USF's inclusion in the tournament. Kenpom has them currently rated 42. That number better than any Pac-12 school, including UCLA and USC. Scan the rankings, stats and standings up and down the California coast and one team stands out above the rest. The Dons are ranked 24th in defensive efficiency and have only allowed one team to score over 65 points. The NCAA's NET ranking has them in the Top 25.
Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends. At this point, the only way San Francisco can find its way into the tournament is either by sweeping its series with Gonzaga, or winning the WCC tournament–both highly unlikely. One of the key factors the committee uses in selecting its 68-team field is Quadrant 1 wins on each team's respective team sheets. Right now, USF is 0-1 in Quadrant 1, and 12-0 outside of the prized quadrant.
Despite the lack of upper-tier wins, the team has the goods to belong.
USF returned nine rotation players and four starters this season. Frankie Ferrari was a first-team All-WCC player last season. This year, the senior is averaging 13.2 points and 6.0 assists per game. Ferrari leads a balanced attack with four players averaging double figures. In San Francisco's 12 victories, only two were won by single digits.
The optimist would have you look at Rhode Island's season last year for hope. The Rams had just two Quadrant 1 victories last season, lost three of their last five, lost in the conference tournament and still got in the tournament–easily. Should Stanford be able to turn around its season and compete in the Pac-12, thus increasing its standing, that could be the difference.
On the other hand, fellow WCC representative Saint Mary's is the cautionary tale of what can go wrong for a mid-major, even a highly thought of team. The Gaels finished the season with just one Quadrant 1 victory. After a conference tournament semifinal defeat last season to BYU–despite a top-25 ranking mid-season–Saint Mary's was left out of the tournament.
Even with its out-of-conference success (wins at Stephen F. Austin and Harvard among the two Pac-12 schools), San Francisco's best chance may be out of their hands. Gonzaga was ranked number one in the country for a brief period in November, and should stay near the top once the conference season begins. If the Dons can keep up with the Zags, while the Bulldogs lift up the conference's overall standing, it could mean an extra team into the field.
"It's NCAA or bust," said Smith.
The title, "Best in California" might have to be the consolation prize.
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