No one assigned Orlando Antigua the role of Kentucky basketball’s good cop. He wanted to contribute, saw a niche he could fill and, in a sense, did what came naturally.
“Reinforce what Coach (John Calipari) would say,” Antigua said this week. “Maybe say it a little differently.”
After a pause, he added, “That’s kind of what assistants are there to do.”
Antigua meant assistant coaches everywhere give players everywhere a different voice to hear.
No, he said, no one ordered him to reassure players, bolster their confidence and smooth over any hurt feelings.
“A lot of it is personality,” Antigua said. “That’s always been my personality. I just thought it was a role that was easy for me to fill.”
Of course, Antigua left Kentucky in 2014 to become head coach at South Florida. His Bulls play UK on Friday afternoon in Miami. UK junior Alex Poythress all but lit up like those decorative trees in downtown Lexington when asked about seeing Antigua.
“‘O’ is my dude,” Poythress said with a smile. “He’s always laughing and joking around. I can’t wait to see him. . . . He’s been one of my guys.”
After Kentucky beat Boston University on Tuesday night, John Calipari was asked about his relationship with Antigua. He quickly hit on Antigua’s friendly demeanor.
“I’ve not met one person that has anything bad to say about him,” the UK coach said. “And I tried to hire guys that that’s how they are, because everybody talks bad about me.”
That was a joke.
The two first crossed paths when Antigua was a senior at St. Raymond’s High in New York and Calipari was a first-year coach at Massachusetts. Antigua had already committed to Pittsburgh.
Calipari did not go away empty handed. He recruited a junior at St. Raymond’s named Dana Dingle, who became a foundational piece in putting UMass on the basketball map in the 1990s. Calipari also recruited Charlton Clarke “from my neighborhood,” Antigua said.
Antigua was on the Pittsburgh team that beat Kentucky 85-67 in the second game of the 1991-92 season. That loss denied UK and then-coach Rick Pitino a trip to New York for the Pre-Season NIT semifinals. Antigua scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds.
While at Pittsburgh, he became well-versed in all things related to Calipari. “Met a lot of people he grew up with and knew in Pittsburgh,” Antigua said.
Calipari hired Antigua for his staff at Memphis, then brought him along to Kentucky in 2009.
Antigua has not brought a quick turnaround in South Florida’s basketball fortunes. His first team had a record of 9-23. The Bulls lost their first four games this season, including losses to two UK opponents: NJIT (60-57) and Boston University (78-66).
South Florida beat Albany 63-61 Tuesday. It was a game Calipari monitored, going so far as to ask associate athletic director of operations Chris Woolard to give him a thumbs up or down when the game ended as Kentucky played Boston U.
“I hope he loses the next one,” Calipari said in reference to South Florida playing Kentucky. “But after that, I hope he wins them all.”
Calipari reminded reporters that the startling rise to prominence he orchestrated at UMass was not an overnight success. The Minutemen had a 10-18 record his first season, then went 17-14 in a second season that ended in the NIT.
South Florida is another UMass, at least in terms of modest starting point.
“Those are the kind of jobs that it takes time,” Calipari said. “It takes one or two, three classes to come together. And then you see it.”
South Florida administrators and fans know they must be patient, Antigua said. Job One was to set a standard of expectation on and off the court. Then comes changing how the program is perceived.
“That doesn’t happen overnight,” Antigua said of the turnaround he hopes to accomplish. “But that is the challenge of the job we signed up for. The way you change is to work every day and try to improve a little bit in all areas.”
The Bulls hope that Roddy Peters, once a five-star recruit who transferred in from Maryland, and 6-foot-8 Louis Santos can help. Angel Nunez spent time at Louisville and Gonzaga before going to South Florida. Jaleel Cousins, a 6-11, 258-pound senior, has gotten into condition enough to help.
Shooting has been a problem. South Florida has made only 39.5 percent of its shots (24 percent from three-point range).
“We had to continue to build up their confidence by going to the gym and work on shooting,” Antigua said, “and understanding that shots are going to come in the offense.”
South Florida will play at UK in a future season, either 2016-17 or 2017-18.
“We’ll get together when we’re down there and iron all that stuff out,” Antigua said.
When asked about spending Thanksgiving in Miami, Poythress smiled and said, “Everybody probably wants to spend (the holiday) with their family. We get to spend Thanksgiving with our second family, which is our teammates and coaches.”
Ryan Ruocco and Kara Lawson will call the game for ESPN.
Kentucky vs. South Florida
When: 5 p.m.
Where: American Airlines Arena in Miami
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 5-0, South Florida 1-4
Series: First meeting