FULL COUNT: Are Rex Walters and the Dons tournament bound this year?

USF Basketball vs Montana

USF Dons coach Rex Walters. photo courtesy of University of San Francisco Athletics Department

The University of San Francisco Dons Men’s Basketball team went into winter break with a winning yet disappointing 5-4 record for head coach Rex Walters, who began the season with his deepest squad since taking the reins in 2008 and early on looked like they could be serious contenders for the West Coast Conference crown.

They rolled to a 77-48 blowout of Nichols State on Dec. 14, but the program is still reeling from the departure of senior point guard Cody Doolin following an altercation with a teammate in the wake of the Dons’ home loss to Idaho State on Nov. 18. Doolin had been one of the best facilitators in the WCC.

“I love that kid (Doolin) but it’s time for us to move on. It’s time for us to focus in on this time. Now there’s a little bit of closure and we can get better every day,” Walters said.

Meanwhile, sophomore guard Tim Derksen continues to run the point for the Dons, but backup Corey Hilliard is out for an extended period of time.

Though Derksen is filling in admirably, without a true point guard this doesn’t look like the year that Walters finally gets USF out of the rebuilding stage and into the NCAA Tournament in March.

His teams have reached the less prestigious College Basketball Invitational (2012) and CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (2011), but the Doolin situation has left the perimeter-heavy Dons playing at a slower pace.

The big test for USF is winning the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas from March 6-11 and besting conference powerhouses Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and Pacific among others to get to the Big Dance, where Walters once led Kansas to the Final Four as a shooting guard in 1993.

The now 43-year-old, who was drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the 16th pick overall in 1993, is a determined spirit who played seven years in the NBA with the Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat before playing in Spain and the ABA for three years.

Walters was also the head coach at Florida Atlantic from 2006-2008 before taking the USF job, and is signed through the 2015-16 season.

Raised in San Jose, where he starred with the San Jose Zebras Japanese American basketball league team, Walters is currently the only Japanese American head coach in college hoops. His father is white and his mother is Japanese.

In a 2011 interview he spoke with Rick Quan about his heritage. “People ask me who I am. What I am,” Walters said. “I am a Japanese American; I take great pride in that.”

Walters remains dedicated and focused on winning as evidenced by his Dec. 9 tweet, “Good Practice. Team is working hard. Fun group to coach. We were locked in today. Let’s get another tomorrow!”

While USF might be a long shot for the postseason, anything is possible. For that matter a JA coach leading an underdog USF squad into the Big Dance would be quite a Cinderella story amid the March Madness.

Drew Morita, a Yonsei from the island of Kaua‘i, grew up rooting for the Oakland A’s but is now a loyal San Francisco Giants fan. He writes from San Francisco. Follow him @drewmorita or e-mail him at drew_morita@yahoo.com.

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