A practice in October was winding down, but before USF men’s basketball coach Rex Walters called an end to it, the Dons began another intrasquad, five-on-five scrimmage. These were the pulse of an astounding offseason of work.
On one team was Frankie Ferrari, a highly touted freshman point guard and local product, listed at 5-11, 160 pounds. On this occasion, he was tasked with guarding Matt Glover, a senior, known across the Hilltop as ‘Jumbo’, as much a reference to his 6-5, 212-pound frame as it is to his ability to muscle into the lane at will.
Which Glover wasted no time in doing. And Ferrari, trying to stay in step, was sent flying to the floor.
On a subsequent defensive possession, the frosh point guard switched onto Tim Derksen, a 6-3 bull of a shooting guard. Derksen soon used a hand-check on the right wing that sent Ferrari sprawling and allowed Derksen to step back for three.
Ferrari didn’t howl for a foul. Both times, he got up and headed down court. Before you’d blinked, he’d knocked down back-to-back threes. Then, once the scrimmage ended, the Dons shot free throws to close out practice—the kind where, if you miss, the whole team runs. Ferrari volunteered to take two, and made both.
This ability to hang fit the bill of a kid that Walters lauded as “hard-nosed” when Ferrari signed last November. It all factored into what Dons redshirt junior swingman Mark Tollefsen would say, minutes later, about this four-man freshman group—Ferrari included.
“Coach will say, Go at the younger guys, dominate them, but then, after you’ve kicked their butt, tell them how you did it, so they understand what we want to do here, what we want to accomplish, what we’re all about,” Tollefsen says.
Added Glover, “It’s not just the coaches trying to explain everything. We might see one of the younger guys doing something we know isn’t the way we do things. So, we pull them aside and show them the right way to do it.”
Tollefsen knows, as did Glover, that if the Dons are to realize their considerable potential this season, they’ll need the newcomers to contribute. Heavily.
When Tollefsen was a freshman, along with current seniors Chris Adams and Gavin Hoffman (Tollefsen is a redshirt-junior), he experienced dysfunction within the team. “Now, they could have taken one of two approaches,” says Walters. “They could say, ‘Well, this is the norm, that’s what you do.’
“But instead, they said, ‘No, this isn’t right, and we need to build from that.'”
So, Tollefsen talks to the freshmen. One of the lessons: “Coach is pretty intense,” Tollefsen says. “And if you’re in high school, and you don’t have an intense coach, and you run the show, you’re the main guy, you’re not used to it.
“So, if guys get upset that he’s getting on them, you just pull them aside and tell them, Hey, it’s OK. Coach is trying to get you better. If he’s not talking to you—that’s when you should be worried.”
Hence, the nuance in their hard-nosed approach. Always explain Why, and make them know they’re included in the fabric.
USF ended last season as one of the hottest teams in the country, winning nine of 11 and streaking into the conference tournament, where they fell to BYU, in overtime. They were within a whisker of a shot at Gonzaga in the final.
Despite the loss, Walters kept his team in Las Vegas to take in the final. He wanted them to see that stage, to see what it felt like to play for a conference title. He wanted it to hurt. He wanted them to use that as fuel.
“It really affected guys,” says Glover. “We all talked about it, the way you feel until you can get that off your back. We felt BYU should’ve been our game. That was one of the things we took into the summer, and into preseason—trying to show everyone that we are as good as we say we are.”
That added a kick to the intensity of this summer’s workouts. Walters noticed a level of ownership developing. “They stick their chest out about that,” says Walters. “These guys play hard, work hard, and get after it.”
Walters called it the most competitive summer he’d seen in his seven years on the Hilltop. So much depth and so much talent meant that no spot was safe. Miss a boxout, you’ll give up a dunk. Slide over a sliver late on a defensive rotation, your man nails a three. It helps that, when Walters points to the leaders among his core group of veterans, he can say things like: “They’re off-the-charts, in terms of work ethic,” Walters says of Glover and Derksen. Add in Tollefsen and 6-7 all-conference forward Kruize Pinkins, and you’ve got four players who start—and set the tone in that regard.
For Ferrari, it was a manifestation of the reasons he wanted to come here. When he spoke after a recent practice, the words came a mile a minute. You could see the pistons firing in his mind, like they do when he’s on the court during games. When he’s not practicing, or playing, Ferrari is working. Ever since he committed to USF, the summer before his senior year, he took every opportunity to get to the Hilltop. He got to know his future teammates. He began to understand what would be expected of him.
“Half the battle is guys like Frankie, that have the talent and the effort, and are willing to learn. They have that thirst for knowledge,” Glover says. “It helps when you get guys like that.”
One of those signed late, this summer. Devin Watson was one of the top performers in the San Diego area, and had been in contact with Dons assistant Dave Rebibo all of last season. When a scholarship opened up in April, following Avry Holmes’s transfer to Clemson, Watson kept thinking USF. He liked the offensive style. He could stay close to home. “It felt like a good situation, so I committed,” Watson says.
Upon his signing, in the first days of June, Walters hailed Watson as a guard that “could score in many ways.” While Watson is a good shooter, he is at his best when putting the ball on the deck and getting to the tin. During that aforementioned intrasquad scrimmage, Ferrari and Watson, both on the same team, provided a punch/counter-punch approach. While Ferrari nailed threes, Watson ghosted to the rim, finishing with aplomb.
“When we’re able to play together in practice, we do some damage,” says Ferrari. “We’re hard to guard. Devin brings a different element, I bring a different element. I can shoot, he can shoot, I can stretch the floor, and he can make plays in the paint.”
When both are asked what they need to work on, they immediately respond: defense.” Coming in, I knew the culture was going to be hard,” says Watson. “That’s the type of atmosphere I wanted.”
In the season opener, a 91-52 shellacking of South Carolina State, we got a glimpse of how much fun this thing will be when it’s humming. “We flowed, we had chemistry, and we defended really well,” says Ferrari.
The high-octane, Let it Rip offense. Incessant movement, quick passing and paint touches. The smothering defense, seen toward the end of last season, only enhanced by the additions of rim protectors Montray Clemons and Derrell Robertson—”get-it guys,” as Walters calls them, before adding of the entire group, “The on-ball defense is better, the team defense is better, the contesting of shots is better.”
Glover is the primary ballhandler, but the additions of Watson and Ferrari allow Walters to throw different looks at opponents. When the freshmen are facilitating, the 6-5 Glover can swing to another guard spot, and look to score in different ways. Few point guards will be able to hang with him in the post. Should opposing coaches opt to counter him with size, Glover can head back out to the perimeter and take them off the bounce.
As the second half started against SC State, Ferrari scored his first official points. Then came the moxie and flow. When the Bulldogs showed zone, Ferrari, based in the right corner, received a pass, faked and fired a bounce pass across the base line to Tollefsen. It ended up as a hockey assist for an Adams three. Later, Ferrari took an inbounds, caught SC State sleeping, and picked out Derksen for an alley-oop. Two minutes later came his best pass of the night, another alley-oop, this time from the left baseline a vintage dunk from the high-flying Tollefsen.
There’s confidence and a headiness to these two freshmen that, at times, belies their age. In the first half of that SC State game, Watson went for the sensational, lobbing a 50-foot alley-oop for a streaking Tollefsen. The pass caromed off the backboard, and into the Bulldogs’ hands.
Watson raced back to the defensive key, stood up an onrushing SC State guard, and calmly snatched a steal out of the air. He pushed upcourt, and picked out Tollefsen with a more measured pass, which the 6-9 swingman sank for a three.
“Both (Ferrari and Watson) are going to make plays out of the offense,” Walters says. “What they’ve got to get better at is running, and understanding, our offense. Once they do that, it’s going to be really scary.”
Ferrari, a kid from Burlingame, just a short drive from San Francisco, remembers the excitement that USF’s success generated last spring. “People saw what they did last year,” he says. “There was hype around them. That made me excited to join this team, and keep doing the same thing.”
Ferrari and Watson understood the extent to which work factored into that success. So, their interviews concluded on a Tuesday afternoon, they headed back to the War Memorial Gymnasium court.
Time to put up some more jumpers.