HARTFORD, Conn. – Orlando Antigua’s first season as head coach of USF is in the books. Judge it by the bottom line, and it stinks: the Bulls went 9-23, including 3-15 in American Athletic Conference play. Dig deeper, though, and you see promising signs that may make this year one that set the stage.
Certainly, the way the season ended isn’t pretty. The Bulls were never really in their first round game against a hungry and confident UConn team, and being close to UConn’s campus meant it was essentially a road game. In addition, they were once again without Corey Allen Jr., whose career ended by being declared ineligible at the end of February for receiving impermissible benefits regarding tuition payments for courses he completed at another school prior to enrolling at USF. That forced this team to go without their leading scorer and grow up a little sooner. It might have been for the best in the sense that they won’t have him next year anyway, so they got an early start.
The early returns seem positive. In the three games at the end of the regular season without Allen, as well as injured forward Chris Perry (who missed the final six weeks of the season), the Bulls actually averaged more points per game (64) than they did for the entire season (62.2). Freshman Troy Holston Jr. came alive before the final games and just picked it up, while junior Nehemias Morillo scored in double figures in each of those games plus Thursday night. The Bulls only won one of those games, but the individual performances are a start. It shows that other players were ready to do more when they had to, and they will have to next year.
With Allen and Perry out, USF was then the least experienced team in the country, as only Anthony Collins has prior Division I experience. With that being the case, in addition to the aforementioned losses, it’s probably not surprising that Antigua used 12 different starting lineups this season. They have one senior (Allen) and three juniors, two of them junior college transfers.
That, and the losing, made it a trial by fire for the new players this season.
“We had several occasions throughout the year where different guys were out and guys stepped up, next man up,” said Antigua. “The next person then just stepped in and for the betterment of the team, took the next step forward and that was huge, that’s important for us and for our future.”
One thing Antigua has done is make this more of a defensive team, and they also have a good deal of size and length to work with. That showed up more at the defensive end, where opponents shot over 42 percent against them and the Bulls blocked nearly five shots per game. Four players have at least 20 blocked shots, with freshman Ruben Guerrero leading the way in that category. That’s not a bad start, though they can get better at that end of the floor as well.
A clear area for improvement will be on the glass, and getting Perry back will help. He led the team in rebounding by far, so his loss was big in that area. With the size they have up front, this should be a better rebounding team than they were, especially since they already defend.
USF will have Maryland transfer Roddy Peters eligible next season after he sat out this one, and they have a nice class of three freshmen coming in. Peters’ addition will strengthen the all-important point guard spot, and he’s gone up against Collins every day in practice. On the whole, this will still be a young team, but the talent base will improve and the freshmen all come from winning programs, which will help. If the holdovers improve, this team can certainly be more competitive and make a jump in the standings.
Antigua said he was pleased with how this team responded to adversity, coming to understand that they can choose how to respond to it. Losing 23 games, including a blowout to end the season, is never easy. Antigua has been a part of many teams that have won big in his coaching career. But look past the record for this season, and you see a program that may soon look back on this year as a building block.