In five seasons as an assistant coach with Kentucky, coach Orlando Antigua helped run one of the most prolific offenses in the country, leading them to two national championship berths.
Following last year’s tournament, Antigua shed his blue and white in favor of green and gold.
Now he is leading the Bulls into the unknown, with questions abounding.
“A lot of questions are still out there: question marks about the players, question marks about the staff, and question marks about how we’re going to play,”
At Kentucky, Antigua coached 24 NBA draft picks, and had the best recruiting class in the nation in each of his years there. He received the Top Assistant Coach under-40 award in 2012.
Antigua has a strong background as an assistant at one of the top programs in the country and the players have taken notice.
“It means a lot,” junior guard Anthony Collins said. “You see players on TV and see how (Antigua) coached them, I think it helps the morale of the team.”
Since coming to USF, Antigua has gained experience as a head coach not only with his collegiate players, but with players from his home country as well.
“Fortunately for me, I have some experience with the Dominican national team and got to make some decisions in games and prepare teams to compete at a high level,” Antigua said. “I’m confident in my own abilities and our staff.”
Antigua has brought over Kentucky coach John Calipari’s play style and coaching strategy: play hard and run fast.
“They do want to run because it’s fun and it’s an exciting way to play the game and it’s the way the game is meant to be played, but you have to push through some comfort levels to get to that point,” Antigua said.
Once at USF in the summer, Antigua implemented his play style, which included a summer full of running.
“(The first workouts) were very painful,” sophomore forward Chris Perry said. “They pushed us harder than we’ve ever been pushed before. We were just running, but the volume in which we did run was just turned up to another level.”
Antigua said the staff did individual workouts to help the players break through personal barriers and bring them to a level they had no idea they could reach.
“We want to help them push through comfort levels, make small breakthroughs and get past certain points in their lives where they thought they couldn’t give anymore,” Antigua said. “When you do that incrementally every day, you hope to have a better outcome than anyone could anticipate.”
For Collins, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury, these early workouts took a toll.
“Early on, it was very hard for me because it was the most I had ever ran since coming back,” Collins said. “But after about four or five weeks, I started getting used to it.”
Antigua took more than just his play style from his days at Kentucky; he also had experience with having new players and having to adjust to a new crop of talent each year.
“I learned it from (Calipari),” Antigua said. “Every year we adjusted to our talent, skill set and our strengths and you have to evaluate that. You start with the foundation and the basis of being aggressive and being in great shape and then you start fine tuning and saying ‘where are our advantages? Then, how do we adjust to take advantage of those opportunities?’”
With a practically new team – Perry, Collins and senior guard Corey Allen Jr. are all that remain from last season’s starters – Antigua said he had to find out who could do what and how to utilize each player in the best way.
With a young team comes a lack of experience. For USF, that might be an understatement.
Of the 13 players on the roster, only three have played in a game at the Division I level. As such, Antigua has leant heavily on his veterans.
“I would have to say our strength right now would be our guard play,” Antigua said. “We have two veteran guys in (Collins) and (Allen Jr.) who fortunately have had a lot of minutes, but no one else does. But at least those guys can stabilize what we’re trying to do until everybody else gets caught up to speed.”
In the preseason basketball press conference, Perry referred to last season as “a joke.”
With his new coach and team, he has a new mindset.
“As freshmen, we didn’t know what to expect and were basically like little kids,” Perry said. “But this year, we have to take on the roles of grown men and be better, mentally.”
There are mild expectations for this team – no one knows exactly what they can do – but all Antigua needs are effort and fight.
“You see that they’re giving you effort and learning and if they do that, the rest will come and we will have an opportunity to be in games and compete,” Antigua said.