On paper, it might not look like the San Francisco Dons have made very big strides from the second to third year in the Jennifer Azzi era.
Even their upset win over the BYU Cougars this season was somewhat muted due to the fact that they had accomplished the same feat last season in Provo, Utah - for whatever reason, they seem to have BYU's number relative to the rest of the field and controlled this season's game from start to finish, which was particularly surprising considering that they got blown out in Provo and are essentially using just five players.
"BYU is such a good program so for us to beat that caliber of a team with really low numbers too, for us, was pretty outstanding, and I'm really proud of our players," Azzi commented after that 65-56 win.
Yet with two games left on their regular season schedule, Azzi and the Dons have an opportunity to achieve what will seem like a small step on the national landscape but something of a considerable leap forward for the coaches, players, and program: simply avoiding the 2013 WCC Tournament play-in game, reserved for the teams that finish 8th and 9th in the conference.
Currently at 3-11 in West Coast Conference play with seventh place Loyola Marymount Lions and ninth place Pepperdine Waves coming to town, the Dons are at the exact same spot they were in last year when they lost their final two games - winning out would put them over three conference wins for the first time since the 2007-08 season, which was the last time USF had a double-digit win total, and also reached five wins in conference play (5-9).
Sticking with that hypothetical scenario of the Dons winning out, assuming that LMU falls to BYU tonight and Pepperdine falls to Saint Mary's on Saturday in the league's non-USF games as well as Portland losing out to Gonzaga and Saint Mary's, USF would finish sixth in the conference for the first time since doing so in 2005-06.
When put in that context, these two games are extremely significant not only for the Dons' program but as a symbol of the job that Azzi has done in her first three years. And it will also require overcoming another significant hurdle: winning consecutive games.
The Dons haven't won consecutive games in WCC play since January of 2008 when they opened conference play with a pair of wins. In other words, just finishing the season with consecutive conference wins - putting all the rest of that aside - would be a symbol of progress in its own right.
"It's part of the building process, it really is, because we don't have the experience and the depth to be that team that knows that every game and everything is sustainable," Azzi said when asked about how to establish greater consistency after getting a big win against BYU a week after losing to LMU and the Santa Clara Broncos on the road. "The more consistent we can become, then the more games we're going to win."
And although their final two opponents are certainly beatable by most teams' standards, wins are hardly a given as USF's track record probably implies.
Of course, the Waves (1-13 in the WCC) got their only win in conference play against the Dons in Malibu in a close 71-67 contest back on January 10. A week later, LMU handed USF a 15-point loss down in Los Angeles led by an efficient 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting from star wing Alex Cowling who enters this final stretch just 20 points shy of tying the WCC's all-time career scoring mark.
Further obstructing progress for USF is a brutal rash of injuries that has left them with just eight players, three of which have been on fringes of the rotation for most of the season. Yet accomplishing what might seem like a minor feat to most people short-handed only adds to the significance of this program's growth for this season, Azzi's standing as a coach, and the future - star freshmen Zhane Dikes and Taylor Proctor won't know or expect anything but whatever occurs this season, whether it means beating a contender in the conference or finishing high enough in the standings to avoid the play-in game.
"As we've been building the program, the big change is when the players start to own the program," Azzi said back in late January. "And if we can get there in part this year, that's great, but when these guys are sophomores and then we get another class coming in with this same kind of like-minded way, it's fun for us."