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Big 4 Basketball season preview: University at Buffalo Bulls

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Honestly, the University at Buffalo Bulls’ Mid-American Conference semifinal loss to Ohio University feels like yesterday. Sadly, gone are the days that inspiring center Mitchell Watt would finish tough one-handed shots in the lane or drift out to the perimeter and stroke a jumper—Zach Filzen won’t be raining treys from beyond the arc this year either.

The 2012-2013 campaign begins at noon Saturday for the University at Buffalo Bulls, who host Princeton at Alumni Arena. Tickets can be purchased here.

Given the strong returning casts of Ohio and Akron, Buffalo’s only expected to finish fourth in the conference. Huge expectations will be shouldered by junior forward Javon McCrea, the MAC Freshman of the Year, who, while deferring to conference player of the year Mitchell Watt last season, still mustered a line of 15 points and seven rebounds per game.

Still, questions loom. Does McCrea have a consistent ability to take a game over, turning it from a close contest into a comfortable win? Few players have that quality, one that can manifest itself in different ways. McCrea will never be the vocal leader that Byron Mulkey was, he certainly can lead by example and through his body language—he’s undoubtedly the most physically gifted player on the floor on any given night, but does he have the mindset to be dominant?

Strengths: In a nutshell, McCrea is a strength. The only problem is, all other MAC teams are quite aware of McCrea’s talents after two years of trying to stop him. McCrea’s skill set is so broad that—when he’s playing hard and harnessing his emotions—he cannot be stopped. Strength on the blocks, sound high-low passing, occasional ball-handling, decent post-up moves, top-notch rebounding and emphatic shot-blocking are just a few of the tools of Reggie Witherspoon’s starlet.

It doesn’t really matter if he averages 20 points and 10 boards this year—the question is this: can McCrea show a dominant streak during conference play? Or is he simply an excellent complementary player?

Fortunately, the strengths don’t end with McCrea. Although starting point guard Jarod Oldham is still developing a shooting stroke, he’s better at protecting the basketball and remains a terrific defender. At the three, Auraum Nuiriankh—who earned a more prominent role as last season progressed—is the sole dangerous three-point shooter in the starting lineup, and that asset will be crucial in replacing Zach Filzen. Judging by his performance on the summer Canada trip, Nuiriankh may not trail McCrea by too much for the team scoring lead at the close of the season.

From one perspective, Witherspoon’s coaching is a strength as well in that he prefers to not have his best five players in the starting lineup—he merely wants them in the game at the most important junctures, especially late. Last year it was Dave Barnett and Titus Robinson who willingly came off the bench, while the year before it was Javon McCrea and Jawaan Alston. This year, Witherspoon anticipates that Tony Watson II will fill that role—he’ll see 25-30 minutes off the bench and will be expected to provide outside shooting, ball-handling and leadership.

I’m excited to see what kind of a role Cameron Downing can play as a backup center, assuming his conditioning is strong enough to handle 15-20 minutes as a sub for both McCrea and Regan.

Weaknesses: The two-guard spot is the biggest immediate concern, as the Bulls’ fate in 2012 could hinge on a breakout season from Corey Raley-Ross, an explosive athlete who couldn’t break into the rotation as an underclassman. As of two weeks ago, Witherspoon had declared him a starter, but we’ll see if that’s been maintained. Raley-Ross doesn’t have the outside shooting ability of Filzen—which opened space in the paint for Watt and McCrea—and I’d expect, at least from the onset, that Witherspoon will turn to a Watson-Oldham combination in crunch time.

The bench is untested, too. To what extent can Witherspoon trust Xavier Ford, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, freshmen Jarryn Skeete, Stan Wier and Andre McPhail? Many of the players that Witherspoon will be counting on did not see regular minutes last season—sure, that’s normal considering the constant turnover in college basketball, but their contributions will certainly shape the Bulls’ season.

Pivotal player: Will Regan, center, transfer from Virginia. I left out Regan until now because he’s truly a wild card. Witherspoon cautioned the media that we should temper our expectations when it comes to Regan, who’s still adjusting to the college game and the Bulls’ system despite sitting out last season because of transfer rules. The Nichols School grad is a gifted inside-outside big with high-major talent, but how he’ll mesh with the current Buffalo squad—and how rusty he’ll be after a year away—is anyone’s guess.

It’s almost impossible to speculate, but those with rose-colored glasses can see Regan posting 14 points and seven boards per game, while maybe 10 points and six rebounds is a more realistic expectation.

Dates to circle:

Big 4 games:

Nov. 20—@ Canisius’ Koessler Athletic Center
Dec. 1—@ St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center
Dec. 8—home vs. Niagara at Alumni Arena

Other home games to note

Nov. 28—home vs. A-10 power Temple
March 2—home vs. conference power Akron
March 5—home vs. conference favorite Ohio

Take a look at Part I of the Big 4 Basketball preview series, which featured the Niagara Purple Eagles.

(Header photo and other photos from Akron game courtesy of Dave Marino, photos from the Kent State game courtesy of Don Nieman).

TAGGED: hoops, javon mccrea, mac, reggie witherspoon, ub basketball, ub bulls, university at buffalo

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