USF Bulls look to follow Florida Gators' path

Billy Donovan has two national titles and four Final Fours on his resume. It will be tough for USF to match that but there are parallels between Donovan (circa 1996) and Orlando Antigua. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times] 
Billy Donovan has two national titles and four Final Fours on his resume. It will be tough for USF to match that but there are parallels between Donovan (circa 1996) and Orlando Antigua. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] 
Published Jan. 6, 2015

TAMPA — The USF fans steeped in reality knew nights such as the recent one in Texas — an 83-49 loss at SMU — were as inevitable as Fowler Avenue gridlock.

They understood new coach Orlando Antigua's veritable deck of attributes — global recruiting chops, Lexington pedigree, resilience forged by a hardscrabble upbringing — couldn't trump reality. USF embarked on the 2014-15 season with a roster featuring only three players with prior Division I experience, making the Bulls the nation's second-youngest team.

To presume they would land on a bracket before landing in a litany of potholes was downright delusional.

"Becoming a team is not as easy as it looks," said point guard Anthony Collins, one of the three veterans. "You can look at the NBA and see the Cavs, and just jelling together. That's just a part we're going through."

Tonight they might skid a time or two on the learning curve again. In what should draw the largest home crowd of the season, the Bulls (7-8, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) host reigning national champ Connecticut (7-5, 0-1), fresh off a 63-59 victory at Florida.

Antigua has studied the tape from Gainesville extensively. If he rewinds it — say, about 20 years — he might find bursts of optimism.

Nearly a generation ago, the Gators — like USF — were a foundering program with a mostly unproven roster that had entrusted their future to a heralded young recruiter with a University of Kentucky background.

Today, Billy Donovan has two national titles and four Final Fours on his resume. While no one's pegging USF for that amount of net-cutting, the parallels between Donovan (circa 1996) and Antigua (circa 2015) can't be ignored.

Former Bulls assistant Mark Wise, a member of Lee Rose's staff from 1980-85, recognizes many of them.

"As they are entering their careers, they were in leagues that you could get better in in a hurry," said Wise, who has called four USF games this season for ESPN3 and handles radio analysis for most Gator games.

"If they both were starting in the Big Ten or ACC this year, you're talking about a five-year project to get in the middle of the pack. The way Billy jumped teams (in the SEC), Orlando has a chance to do the same."

Before leapfrogging teams to reach the SEC's upper echelon, Donovan, a Rick Pitino disciple, installed a breakneck style rooted in full-court pressure. He also recruited maniacally.

Similarly, Antigua clearly is trying to expand USF's offense from 47 to 94 feet. He's also recruiting maniacally.

"I think when you draw those parallels they're very similar in trying to change the program's identity," Wise said.

Facilities are another matter. Antigua inherited the 50,000-square-foot Muma Basketball Center in which the men's and women's teams are headquartered. When Donovan arrived at UF, his team shared an O'Connell Center practice court with the Gators women.

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"Not even close," Wise said.

The other glaring difference can be spotted at the turnstiles. Donovan's first game at Florida, a 17-point win against UCF, attracted 7,549 fans. The last time USF hosted a reigning national champ, last January against Louisville, the game drew only 6,417.

For myriad reasons, college basketball remains a tougher sell in Tampa than Gainesville. Fortunately for the Bulls, Antigua — like Donovan — knows how to pitch a program to blue-chippers and boosters alike.

Nine of Donovan's players have become NBA first-round draftees. Antigua, once named to Yahoo Sports' list of the nation's top 10 recruiters, helped assemble the stacked Kentucky rosters of recent seasons, one of which (2012) featured six NBA draft picks alone.

"Orlando's going to do a phenomenal job here," Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. "He's absolutely the right guy for this job."

It just takes time. Gainesville wasn't built in a day either; Donovan didn't have a winning season until his third.

"(Antigua) sat on the bench in Rupp (Arena) for a number of years and saw teams come and play in awe of the opponent," Wise said. "Then he had to sit on the other end of that (last week) at SMU. I think that's a challenge, and I think Billy had that early on. … The trick for (USF) is to become the team not in awe."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.