With USF men’s basketball’s 70-63 loss to Temple on Sunday, the season continues to slip away, with the sweet relief of the offseason just around the corner.
It has been a draining season to forget for the team and what’s left of the truly loyal fan base that still make its way to the Sun Dome in hopes of a different outcome – usually to no avail.
While the blame primarily goes on a direct line to the coach, in this case, a wealth of factors out of USF coach Orlando Antigua’s control have sent his head coaching debut down a rough road.
Antigua shoulders most of the program’s shortcomings — a tall task even for a man standing 6-foot-7 — but the origin of the downward turn stretches past the 43-year-old, first-time head coach. Nevertheless, the rumblings have begun and his seat is warming.
But, if athletic director Mark Harlan has taken anything away from this past year, it’s that sometimes it pays to wait. Just ask USF football coach Willie Taggart.
Antigua is far removed from his glory days sitting alongside one of college hoops’ finest in Kentucky coach John Calipari.
During his tenure as a Kentucky assistant, Antigua helped coach the Wildcats to a 153-37 record. In that five-year span, Kentucky reached 20 wins each season, appeared in the Final Four three times and the national championship twice, winning in 2012.
Antigua’s production has slipped quite a bit since leaving the college basketball promised land to take the job at USF. In his first 55 games as a head coach, he has a .341 winning percentage (14 games) — 21 percent in the AAC.
Should you blame the coach for a team having single-digit wins? Absolutely, but first look what he inherited.
Following the firing of former coach Stan Heath in March 2014, six players left USF in the rearview mirror in search of a fresh start. One of them, then-freshman John Egbunu, who transferred to Florida, had emerged the season prior as one of the nation’s top post players.
Instead of getting the chance to build upon a roster of young talent, Antigua was forced to poke and prod his way around the country and piece together a team.
He was successful, in a sense.
In fact, all six of the players who scored in USF’s loss to Temple on Sunday were added after Antigua’s arrival.
The problem for Antigua wasn’t necessarily finding the best players, but getting them to jel as a unit — something that Antigua is still working toward.
And injuries haven’t exactly aided the team’s progression either.
Following an impressive 5-1 start to his tenure in 2014, it looked as if there was no doubt Antigua was the right guy for the job, but that confidence soon began to waver as USF lost 22 of its remaining 26 games. This was, in part, due to injuries — most notably the loss of then-sophomore forward Chris Perry (heart issue), who had begun to emerge as the Bulls’ cornerstone.
This season has seen much of the same narrative.
It began with sophomore guard Troy Holston Jr. tearing his ACL in June. Maryland transfer Roddy Peters followed suit with an ankle injury in mid-December, forcing freshman Jahmal McMurray to play nearly every minute. Not to mention Perry’s recent suspension.
The list goes on, but the Bulls have been able to keep a handful of their games within reach, giving them a shot to win late in the game, even with a depleted roster.
USF dressed just nine players against Temple and was able to steal back-to-back conference victories against Houston and Tulane last week with only six scholarship players in rotation.
It begs the question: Would it have been a different season with a full complement of players?
A moot point as the tumultuous season nears its end.
As for USF’s fearless leader, it’s a matter of what he can do when not pinned against the ropes.
Looking past the next nine games — barring an unforeseen run in the conference tournament — USF’s roster will look to level out and stabilize.
If healthy, USF will likely have Perry leading the charge — with Ruben Gurrero, Luis Santos and Tulio Da Silva, who was forced to sit out his freshman season, supporting the frontcourt — and a McMurray-Peters tandem that should allow Antigua to get back to his fast-paced Kentucky roots.
It’s been a grim opening for Antigua’s career, but given the chance, his tenacity will shine through, leading what was once a gutted afterthought back to relevancy.
—Follow on Twitter @JacobHoagUSF