TAMPA - The University of South Florida women's basketball team looks to advance to its seventh straight postseason tournament this year, but in order to do so must work its way through the usual demanding BIG EAST Conference schedule. Another step towards that postseason goal came today when USF and the BIG EAST announced the 2009-10 league slate.
Four Saturday home dates, including a meeting with perennial Top 25 member Rutgers - coached by C. Vivian Stringer, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 11 - and a trip to New York City to play St. John's in the "World's Most Famous Arena," Madison Square Garden, highlight this year's league schedule for the Bulls.
"I believe that we play in the best league in the country," said USF head coach Jose Fernandez. "The last few years it has shown with the BIG EAST Conference sending about 13 or 14 teams to either the NCAA Tournament or the Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). Two of our teams, Louisville and Connecticut, played in the national championship game and we won the WNIT title."
"As far as our league schedule you have to play everybody, at one point or another, during January and February so every team has to be ready night in and night out," said Fernandez. "There are no easy games in the BIG EAST Conference."
Following its non-conference schedule, which was announced on Aug. 18, USF won't have any time to take a breather as it jumps right into the fray facing six of the BIG EAST's 12 postseason participants. The Bulls will open the conference ledger with a game that will pit 2009's two defending postseason champions. USF, the reigning WNIT champions will face defending NCAA National Champion Connecticut on Jan. 4 at the XL Center in Hartford. It will mark the third straight season that the Bulls will open the conference portion of their schedule on the road.
USF will then return home to take on Georgetown on Jan. 9 before rounding out the first three games at Notre Dame on Jan. 12. The Hoyas, the Bulls' lone home-and-home opponent, advanced to the quarterfinals of the WNIT last year while the Fighting Irish took part in the NCAA Tournament losing to Minnesota, 79-71, in the first round.
After two of the first three games away from the Sun Dome, USF will then play four of its next six contests on its home court.
The Bulls will play back-to-back games in the Sun Dome against Syracuse on Jan. 16, and Pittsburgh - who advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 last season - on Jan. 20.
USF will then travel to the Big Apple to play in one of college basketball's most stories arenas, Madison Square Garden, facing the Red Storm on Jan. 23. After its trip to New York, the Bulls will enjoy its only bye week of the season before heading to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats on Jan. 30.
USF will close out the six-game stretch at home against Villanova on Feb. 2, and will kick off the second half of the conference slate with Rutgers on Feb. 6.
The Bulls will then embark on its most daunting part of the schedule with three consecutive road games during an eight-day stretch, starting with Marquette on Feb. 9. USF will then travel to Seton Hall on Feb. 13, and then face Georgetown, for the second time, on Feb. 16.
Three of the last four games of the regular season will be played on USF's home turf. West Virginia and Providence visit the Sun Dome on Feb. 20 and Feb. 23 respectively, before the Bulls head to Louisville to take on the national runner-up Cardinals on Feb. 27 in the final women's game at historic Freedom Hall.
The Bulls will close out its regular season on March 1 at home against DePaul.
The BIG EAST Conference Tournament will once again take place at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. March 5-9 with all 16 conference teams taking part in the event for the second straight year.
Last season, the Bulls posted a 27-10 record - the best in school history - and an 8-8 eighth place finish in the BIG EAST Conference. USF finished the year winning five consecutive games en route to the WNIT postseason title - including three consecutive on the road. After a first round bye, the Bulls took care of Florida Gulf Coast (88-81 in overtime) on March 21 and Mississippi (74-57) on March 26, both coming at home. USF then hit the road, for 10 straight days, to defeat St. Bonaventure (80-66) on March 29, Boston College (82-65) on April 1 and Kansas (75-71) on April 4 in the title game.
The championship game with the Jayhawks was played in front of a USF, Kansas and Big 12 women's basketball record crowd of 16,113 at historic Phog Allen Fieldhouse. It was also the eighth largest crowd to see a women's basketball game in Division I this season.
The Bulls return two of its four scorers from last year's team in Janae Stokes and Jessica Lawson.
Stokes was second on the team in scoring averaging 12.6 points per game and was one of the top three-point shooter's in America hitting 39.7 percent (116-292) of her shots from behind the arc, ranking her 37th in the nation.
Lawson finished the year fourth on the team in scoring netting 10.6 points per contest, and was tied for second in rebounding grabbing 6.7 per game. In addition, the sixth-year senior shot 55.9 percent (151-270) from the field on the year which was good enough for fifth in the BIG EAST.
USF will kick its season off on Nov. 13 against Florida A&M. On that night, the Bulls will also raise their WNIT Championship banner.