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San Francisco has Golden opportunity behind Jamaree Bouyea

The Dons may be a big-time sleeper in the WCC with their talented backcourt.

NCAA Basketball: AFR Hall of Fame Tip-Off-San Francisco at Rhode Island David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Early in San Francisco’s game against Virginia last November, Jay Bilas mentioned on the ESPN broadcast that Dons’ coach Todd Golden liked his guard group, so much so that he felt they gave his team a chance to compete against anyone. He was right. The Dons went on to upset the Cavaliers, notching the WCC’s best non-conference win by a team that wasn’t Gonzaga in 2020-21.

That early win in the Mohegan Sun’s Bubbleville didn’t end up being a launching pad for USF, particularly after the Dons lost six straight games to end the regular season. But despite that late slump, the backcourt that lifted USF past UVA is back, and the Jamaree Bouyea-Khalil Shabazz pairing could make the Dons an exciting sleeper next season.

USF has spent the past five seasons in an interesting spot in the mid-major pecking order. They’ve never quite been in season-long contention for shiny-yet-realistic things like an NIT bid or top-3 finish in the WCC, but they’ve been firmly on the periphery of the upper tier of mid-major programs.

Former coach Kyle Smith immediately cobbled together a quality defensive team during his first season in charge in 2016-17, getting non-conference wins against Utah and Illinois State in the Diamond Head Classic that were each on their own the program’s best in years. From there, the past five years have seen the Dons post four 20-win or more seasons, make a run to the CBI title in 2018 and finish in the KenPom top 100 (not to mention being a frequent part of the Other Top 25 — the most important accomplishment, of course).

By traditional standards, this past year under second-year coach Todd Golden was the least successful, as the late season losing streak had them finish 11-14 (4-9), but that can be deceiving. The team still finished in the KenPom top 100 and though the defense sagged in that late season slump, five of the six losses came by single digits, and all were to teams that finished in the top half of the WCC. Surely frustrating, but not necessarily alarming.

Could there be more nights like against UVA and less like that February slog in 2021-22? For one thing, Bouyea deciding to take advantage of the NCAA’s free year gives Golden that compete-against-all potential yet again.

For a program that’s not lacked productive guards in recent years — Charles Minlend, Frankie Ferrari — Bouyea may well be the best. The Seaside, Calif. native is coming off an All-WCC first team season that saw him post career highs in scoring (17.3 PPG) and assists (3.7 APG) while dominating games, such as the win over the Cavaliers. He’s risen to the point he landed at No. 82 in Three Man Weave’s top 100 player rankings.

It’s been a tremendous ascent for an overlooked prep player that Smith’s staff — which included Golden — found using their own proprietary metrics system. That early belief wasn’t lost on Bouyea when he talked about his decision to return in a release.

“USF means a lot to me because they were the only program to give me a scholarship offer out of high school,” said Bouyea. “I believe it’s only right I come back and finish my career as a Don. I believe in this coaching staff and what we are building, and there is more work to do. I took the time to pursue professional opportunities, but due to the pandemic the right fit did present itself, making this decision to return even easier.”

The senior was a dynamic pick-and-roll ballhandler last season, with points per possession effectiveness that rivaled players like Marcus Zegarowski (who was drafted in the second round) JaQuori McLaughlin (who signed a two-way contract with the Dallas Mavericks) and Joseph Yesufu (who’s now at Kansas).

Golden’s offense resembles some of Randy Bennett’s best at Saint Mary’s — where Golden played and coached — with a court spread with five players that can shoot. Few teams have relied on the three as much during his two-year tenure, which, with Bouyea’s elite playmaking back, could be the point at which the Dons explode in 2021-22.

Bouyea’s senior backcourt running mate, Shabazz, is a tremendous defender and sparkling scorer in transition. But despite a quality season (15.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG) that landed him on the All-WCC second team, his shooting numbers dipped, particularly from three (32.8 3P% v. 36.2 3P% the year before), where he remained a key cog in the Dons’ three-pointy heavy offense.

An uptick in that area would make the Dons that much more dangerous around Bouyea, especially with experienced forwards and capable shooters in Dzmitry Ryuny and Josh Kunen back, and a proven three-point threat in Columbia guard Gabe Stefanini and yet another stretch forward option in Nevada’s Zane Meeks joining via transfer. That’s another core that should have Golden feeling confident, and could dramatically reverse the disappointing end to last season.