With the second youngest team in all of Division 1 basketball, it was a given that the first season of the Orlando Antigua era at South Florida (7-19, 1-12) would serve as a huge learning curve for an inexperienced team looking to build a foundation for the future. Mistakes would be made, injuries would occur, and inexperience would reign supreme for the young Bulls throughout the season. However, after a 27 point home beat down to Memphis on Valentine’s Day, the Bulls find themselves in the midst of an eleven game losing streak, the program’s worst skid since the 2005-06 regular season. Recent losses to Cincinnati, UCF, and the aforementioned Memphis Tigers has left a fed up Corey Allen Jr. feeling as if the team has “taken a step back” the past few games. Perhaps the young team and the first year head coach are learning firsthand that bottoming out like this is simply part of the growing pains of building a winning program from scratch.
Ironically enough, the first month of the regular season told a completely different story. USF rushed out the gate to a 5-1 start, proving they could control the tempo of games and persevere through tight situations. An OT win over UAB and a Chris Perry game winning layup vs Hofstra brought early excitement and promise to the team in the month of November. Even a hard fought 68-65 loss at NC State was a positive sign of confidence for the squad led by returning Perry, Allen Jr., and Anthony Collins. However, as the calendar switched to the month of December, fortunes turned south for the Bulls as they dropped seven of their next nine contests, including a 83-49 New Year’s Eve shellacking at SMU, a rude welcoming to AAC play. Their January 3rd 58-50 victory over East Carolina would serve as their last taste of success before going on a month long drought that has landed the green and gold dead last in the American Athletic Conference standings.
The dynamics that have gone into the eleven game slide have exposed negatives in terms of lack of depth, but have also yielded some positives in allowing several key first year players to develop. The Bulls are losing games by an average margin of 13.5 points in each contest, yet each game have told varying stories. Some matchups such as February 7th vs Cincinnati have seen the Bulls rally from behind for second half leads, only to fade down the stretch and come up just short of a victory. They were even able to take first place Tulsa to overtime on January 31st. However, games at the aforementioned Golden Hurricane, Temple, and Memphis have witnessed more experienced teams capitalizing on poor shooting performances and turnovers by South Florida early on to quickly put them away by the midway point of the second half. Adding to this futility is the issue of depth. The switch from the Stan Heath to the Orlando Antigua era brought a major roster overhaul to USF, with only three players returning to the roster. Any major injury to a starter would certainly throw a wrench into the cohesion of the unit, which is exactly what happened when Chris Perry was sidelined for the January 25th matchup at Uconn due to chest pains and has been listed as day to day ever since.
Despite the team’s misfortunes, the experience and gains in improvements from certain individual players have shown signs of positive things to come for the Bulls in the future. Although missing two out of the last three contests due to sickness, Nehemias Morillo has stepped up his offensive production, averaging 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. The team veteran Corey Allen Jr. continues to carry the offensive load, averaging 15.2 points per game, including a 32 point outburst at Tulsa, that’s landed him second in the AAC in scoring just behind Ryan Boatright. Then there’s the progression of freshman Ruben Guerrero, who possibly has the highest ceiling of any player on the roster. The Marbella, Spain native has made tremendous strides in adjusting his approach, style, and even size to fit a more physical style that’s played in American college basketball. The six foot eleven freshman has put on thirty pounds since first arriving to campus in June and is continuing to develop and utilize his length as the season progresses. As his minutes have increased over the season in the starting lineup, Guerrero has averaged 5.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, including a career high 17 point output in the losing effort vs. Memphis. Antigua exclaimed, “He’s a kid that continues to improve and we’re excited about his growth and his maturity,” when speaking about his freshman Center after Saturday’s loss.
The struggles of conference play may indicate that wins and losses do not necessarily matter at this point in year one under the helm of Orlando Antigua. At this point, an indicator of success is how the team responds to adversity from game to game and if they’re steadily improving from game to game. So far, all signs point to these things occurring, but the goal of breaking a month and a half of futility and putting a tally mark in the win column is what Bulls fans hope happens sooner rather than later. Like has been the case since the streak first started, they will get another opportunity to wipe their slate clean on Tuesday, February 17th when hosting Houston.