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Surprising Dons entertain No. 5 Gonzaga in San Francisco

First-year head coach. Best player transferred. Few proven players returning. Thirteen freshmen and sophomores on 15-man roster.

Hardly sounds like the right ingredients to become the WCC’s surprise team.

Nearly two months into the season, San Francisco is 11-4 – its best 15-game start since 2000 – and Kyle Smith is an early candidate for WCC Coach of the Year as No. 5 Gonzaga (14-0) makes its annual visit to the Hilltop on Thursday.

“They played very well in Hawaii (defeating Utah and Illinois State) over Christmas,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “Kyle has done a nice job of putting the thing together.”

San Francisco and Gonzaga were about as far apart as possible when the WCC preseason poll was released. GU was in its usual spot at No. 1. USF was ninth out of 10 teams.

“I wish I knew the formula,” laughed Smith, who spent nine years as an assistant at Saint Mary’s from 2001-2010 and eight assisting at San Diego from 1992-2000. “We knew we had to get under the hood and get to work as far as getting the right people on board.”

Smith landed some talented players, including Charles Minlend, a freshman guard who was drawing interest from Ivy League schools. Returning players Nate Renfro, Chase Foster, Matt McCarthy and lone senior Ronnie Boyce elevated their games. Guard Frankie Ferrari, who played for USF a few years ago, rejoined the team.

A 10-day summer tour of Germany, Belgium and France helped the Dons form an early bond. The extra practices and four games allowed Smith to evaluate his roster.

“We want great attitudes and workers and players that are proud to be here,” said Smith, who coached Columbia to 101 wins in six seasons before taking the USF job. “If they wear USF on their chest, it has to mean something to them.”

Guard Devin Watson, who averaged 20.3 points last season, transferred to San Diego State, but the Dons maintain a rotation that runs 10-11 deep with no one averaging more than 24.1 minutes.

USF averages 77.3 points and ranks as one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams. Boyce and Minlend come off the bench, but they’re still the top two scorers.

“It’s pretty evenly distributed,” said Smith, whose team entertains Saint Mary’s and his former boss, Randy Bennett, on Saturday. “We have two really good scorers and 11 or 12 guys that in the same range talent-wise. We’re still sorting ourselves out.”

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