TAMPA — Shortly after the arrival of new men’s basketball coach Orlando Antigua — somewhere between the never-ending sprints and running the arena stairs — University of South Florida senior guard Corey Allen Jr., remembers his teammates sharing a desperate sentiment.
“We were all looking around like, ‘This man is crazy!’ ” Allen said, smiling.
He can smile now.
Allen and his USF teammates agree: They are in the best physical shape of their lives. They can run like never before. Instead of milking the shot clock and working each possession into near-strangulation, Antigua’s Bulls are billing themselves as a crowd-pleasing, run-and-gun, offense-friendly operation.
At least that’s the plan.
When USF opens the Antigua era in Friday night’s regular-season opener against Flagler College, the Bulls promise to open the court and take the first available good shot. They want to attack the basket, throw lobs, get dunks and become a lot more adept at making 3-pointers.
It’s the same style employed by the University of Kentucky, where Antigua served on John Calipari’s staff the past five years. Obviously, UK was flooded with one-and-done, NBA-ready recruits. Does USF have the personnel and depth to pull it off?
Antigua says yes.
“Early on, we did a lot of individual instruction and part of that had to do with conditioning, running and doing drills with a certain level of intensity,” Antigua said. “We’re helping them push through comfort levels, making small breakthroughs, getting past points in their life where they thought they couldn’t give any more.
“When you do that incrementally every day, over the long haul, you hope to have a better outcome than anyone would ever anticipate. Everybody says they want to run … until you do it. It’s exciting. It’s the way the game was meant to be played. But you have to push through some comfort levels and give effort. Right now, I’m excited by the effort I have seen.”
Sophomore forward Chris Perry, who made the American Athletic Conference all-rookie team last season, has reduced his weight from 266 to 242, transforming himself from an almost exclusive back-to-the-basket player to a versatile, mobile scorer and rebounder.
Anthony Collins and Allen, the likely starting backcourt, love the possibilities.
Junior center Jaleel Cousins, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound center, has bought in completely. In fact, when players were asked about their favorite quote from Antigua, here’s how Cousins responded:
Antigua said the Bulls will run with strategy in mind. From Calipari, he learned about adapting the system to the available personnel.
“We want to run as fast as we can, as much as we can,” Antigua said. “They’ve got to stay on the court, thinking, processing, registering, while playing at a pace they’re uncomfortable doing. We know there are going to be a lot of mistakes early on. That’s part of it. They haven’t been accustomed to thinking at the speed we want them to think, playing at the speed we want them to play. It’s a new pace, a new system, almost like learning a brand new language.
“The other part of it is teams are not generally used to competing against it. When fatigue starts coming into play, if they’re not a team accustomed to practicing like that every day, then you get some separation. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Collins, a freshman point guard on USF’s 2012 NCAA tournament team, said he’s enthused about the up-and-down philosophy. He remembers playing a defense-oriented, limited-possession style under Stan Heath and it was effective.
Back then, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said playing against USF was like “getting a root canal.” National media members panned the style, calling it an “eyesore” among other things, but the new-look Bulls don’t figure to be boring.
“They want us to have fun, play fast, everything goes fast,” Collins said. “But it’s not a careless thing. First, we have to play defense, reboud the ball and share the ball.
“We never ran that much (before) because they knew how we wanted to play. Coach Heath tried to get us to run, but our team wasn’t set up that way. At the end of the day, we just tried to win. Coach O wants us to play fast, but he also wants us to win. I think it’s going to be fun. I think the fans will be entertained. I can’t wait.”