The best is yet to come for USF men’s basketball

Commentary

By Brian Hattab, ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR
On March 6, 2019

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS

It’s easy to get down when things aren’t going well.

And recently, for USF men’s basketball, well — things hadn’t been going so well.

After the Bulls’ heartbreaking 60-58 loss at UConn on Sunday, someone responded to the official USF men’s basketball Twitter account with a GIF that said, simply, “We suck again.”

Good grief, people! Let’s look at the bigger picture here.

USF is less than two years removed from skating away without NCAA sanctions for a recruiting scandal involving former assistant coach Oliver Antigua prior to the 2016-17 season — a season where the Bulls won seven games.

Amazingly, the true low point of that season didn’t come until Feb. 24, when arguably the best players on the team at the time — Troy Holston and Geno Thorpe — were left in Houston after falling asleep waiting for a connecting flight home from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

By that point, Antigua and his brother, head coach Orlando Antigua, had long since left the program — Oliver resigned amid the scandal and Orlando was fired Jan. 3 — and replaced on an interim basis by Murry Bartow.

Bartow tried his best but was only able to muster one win during his tenure — a Feb. 11 defeat of ECU at what was then the Sun Dome.

“Their spirit is so incredibly good,” an emotional Bartow said at the time. “Practices have been great and the energy has been good … we knew at some point we’d get one and tonight’s the night.”

A single victory against a below-average ECU team was treated as if USF had just cut down the nets at the end of March Madness. That was the state of USF men’s basketball two seasons ago.

Bartow, now interim coach at UCLA, was replaced by Brian Gregory shortly after the season.

Gregory, known for his no-nonsense approach to team discipline, cleaned house shortly after he arrived in Tampa. Of Gregory’s 2017-18 opening night starting lineup, only one player was a holdover from the Antigua era. By the end of the season, that number was zero.

But it’s not like there was a whole lot of on-court success last season for USF. The Bulls won a total of three conference games, two of them at the very end of the regular season. That, after losing their first seven straight AAC games.

Now, as the 2018-19 season reaches its conclusion, USF, with a roster entirely of players Gregory brought to town, sits on the cusp of its first 20-win season since 2011-12. There has been a ton of tournament talk the last month or two, both NCAA and NIT at times, which would be USF’s first postseason appearance since the same season.

But there have been growing pains that have come along with this breakthrough season.

A few free throws here and there and the Bulls already have that 20-win season. A few baskets made during otherwise cold streaks in games and USF may be a lock for a first-round bye in next week’s AAC Tournament in Memphis.

Those losses have been frustrating and, honestly, for good reason.

But the bigger picture is so much more important.

A rebuild is not an overnight process.

“We understand … the big picture of things and where we’re at,” Gregory said this week. “We’ve made steady improvements and at the same time, you always want more.

“When you lose three or four games in league play where the opponent has made one more play than you have, it’s difficult. But when you’re able to take a step back, that’s probably where we’re at right now. We just need to continue to get better and improve and hopefully as we continue to move forward, we’ll be able to do those things.”

If USF doesn’t make a postseason tournament, there will probably be one or two plays it can point to as why. And, quite honestly, it’ll be disappointing to just barely miss out on postseason play.

But consider where this program was just two years ago. The fact USF is even eligible for postseason play, let alone on the bubble for it basketball-wise, is nothing short of amazing.

The future is bright for the Bulls.

Just trust the bigger picture.

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