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Slow start is cause for concern for USF men’s basketball

USF coach Orlando Antigua talks to junior power forward Chris Perry during Saturday's loss to Boston University at the Sun Dome. The Bulls are a loss away from tying the program's worst start at 0-5. ORACLE PHOTO/ROBERTO ROLDAN

To say things have been a struggle for the USF men’s basketball team through four games this season would be understating the situation quite a bit.

There have been blown double-digit leads, zero production from beyond the arc, shoddy defense and plenty of frustration to go around.

Oh, and there is a big zero in the win column.

Just how bad have things been? You’d have to blow the dust off a 1987-88 media guide to find a poorer start — 0-5 — which stands as the worst in the program’s 45-season history.

A loss tonight to Albany at the Sun Dome, however, will match that mark — one that has stood through the dark ages of Seth Greenberg, Robert McCullum and Stan Heath. Another defeat against No. 1 Kentucky in Miami on Friday will surpass it.

After the Bulls fell to Boston University by 12 points Saturday, senior center Jaleel Cousins aired his grievances loud and clear.

“I’d say we took two steps back today because of our work ethic,” he said. “I don’t think we went hard as a team. Everybody just didn’t give it their all.”

A start like this would have been expected last year. The Bulls entered the season with only three players on the active roster that had seen playing time at the college level. They also had endured a mass exodus, with a handful players, including star big man John Egbunu, bolting for other programs when Heath was fired following the 2013-14 season.

This season was expected to be a step forward despite a difficult schedule and the loss of point guard Anthony Collins — the last remaining player from its 2012 NCAA Tournament team — to Texas A&M as a graduate transfer.

So far, though, it has been a seemingly-consistent regression. 

In its opener against Troy, USF led by as many as 14 points before Swiss-cheese defensive performance and poor shooting in the second half (24.1 percent from the floor) allowed the Trojans to storm back for an 82-77 win. 

The story was much of the same in Game 2 against the New Jersey Institute of Technology — which once set a record for 51 consecutive Division I losses from 2007 to 2009 — on Nov. 16 as the Bulls blew a 23-8 lead and lost by three.

They’ve shot 38 percent overall from the floor for the season, including a measly 26 percent from 3-point range. Opponents, meanwhile, have shot 41 percent.

“We have to learn how to win, we have to learn to how to continue to win,” coach Orlando Antigua said. “We do enough and we’ve shown enough that we can take a lead. Now, we have to continue to play, be smart, execute so that we can finish off games.”

Since that Cinderella run to the third round of the tournament three years ago, they’ve lost 66 games.

Antigua’s former school, Kentucky, has won 92.

“Definitely steps forward, but I’m getting to the point where I’m just tired of saying that,” junior power forward Chris Perry said after a 73-67 loss to George Washington on Thursday.

In order to build this program into a consistent contender for something more than postseason golf outings, there’s no denying that Antigua is going to need time and plenty of patience from all involved.

Much like football coach Willie Taggart, he inherited a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with about 490 missing pieces.

So far, he and his staff have been red-hot on the recruiting trail and the players he has plugged in to fill the void of those who departed with his predecessor have shown promise.

Sophomore center Ruben Guerrero is maturing into a quality big man. Freshman guard Jahmal McMurray has emerged as a strong shooter with plenty of room to grow defensively. And before suffering a knee injury during the offseason that will sideline him for most of this season, Oldsmar Christian alumnus Troy Holston was solid from long range.

But this is a team sport, and looking at the schedule right now, how many games can be pointed to as a definitive victory? Two? Four?

“We still haven’t put a complete game together and that’s my message to them: Let’s see if we can do that,” Antigua said. “No one is feeling sorry for us right now.”

That progress needs to show through eventually. A win would be a positive first step.