The power of five
blog by UB Spectrum • March 21, 2012 @ 12:06am
In a life or death situation, what situation would be scarier: outswimming a big, ferocious shark or outrunning an equally big and vicious bear?
Now this may seem like a silly debate, but these are the types of philosophical questions that a certain group of five guys on the men’s basketball team ponder. When the group gets together and analyzes a topic, prepare to see feelings hurt.
These guys go back-and-forth on just about every topic imaginable, but the sophomore quintet – consisting of guards Corey Raley-Ross and Jarod Oldham, forwards Auraum Nuiriankh, Javon McCrea, and Cameron Downing—are an inseparable bunch.
These talented Bulls players refer to themselves as The Five. With big egos, big smiles, and approachable personalities, these young athletes are looking to usher in a new era of Buffalo basketball – on and off the court.
The Birth of The Five
In the spring of 2010 the members of The Five signed their letter of intent to play basketball for head coach Reggie Witherspoon. In the late spring and summer, they practiced together, got to know the area and each other. An unbreakable bond was created; The Five was born.
“When we got here it was just us living together all day every day,” Nuiriankh said. “We had the same schedules, we ate together, and we just bonded that way.”
The various lifestyles were apparent.
There’s Nuiriankh, the quiet leader. Hailing from Baltimore, Md., he is a tough-minded, confident kid whose winning attitude is reflected in his commitment to defense, just like his idol Kobe Bryant.
Oldham, a young assassin on the court whose game is reminiscent of Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, is from Decatur, Ill. He is one of the best table-settlers in the MAC, as he leads the conference in assists. Off the court, he is a very personable guy, always willing to talk and laugh with fans.
Corey Raley-Ross is considered by Witherspoon to be the best athlete on the team. With the ability to go to the rack and sky over opponents, the Charlotte, N.C. native likens his game to Bryant as well.
Downing, a gentle giant with a smooth touch around the rim and a thirst for the ball on the offensive and defensive boards, is from Tulsa, Okla. He was nervous, but open-minded, about having to travel cross-country into a whole new world.
“It was something new,” Downing said. “I wasn’t used to everybody and their accents, and we all have different lifestyles, and we all grew up in different places, so it was just something new. [The Five] are pretty much my family now, my brothers and everything.”
McCrea, the best player of The Five, is a charming, and silly guy off the court. On the court he is a killer, as this 6-foot-7 physical specimen is a problem for those brave enough to stand in his path in the post.
With five very different guys, from five different corners of the country, the speed in which they bonded was remarkable.
“You’ve got five guys, from different parts of the country, and they’re so close, and I think that’s so unique,” Witherspoon said. “It usually takes time for that to happen but it happened so quickly for them. They know each other extremely well.”’
Whether it was getting lost at the Boulevard Mall or getting stuck in the elevators at Governors Complex, The Five made every day and every experience a wild adventure. Cue the shark versus bear debate.
While the guys were watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel over the summer, a debate emerged. Was it easier to get away from a shark or a bear in a life or death situation? Oldham, McCrea, Nuiriankh and Raley-Ross, like many people, thought it would be easier to get away from a bear.
But Downing disagrees vehemently, something that Raley-Ross still finds incredibly funny.
“I’d rather take on a shark,” Raley-Ross said, mimicking Downing. “I would punch it in the gills, and drown it.”
Nuiriankh added on.
“To this day, he still believes that he can drown a shark,” said Nuiriankh.
The Five’s impact on the team was immediate. In an early season blowout win against Navy, Witherspoon saw it as an opportunity to play the five freshmen for the first time.
“The first game we played in was versus Navy,” Raley-Ross said. “I don’t know how everybody else felt, but I was happy going in with my brothers.”
For one of the guys, his playing time grew tremendously.
McCrea quickly became one of the rising stars in the Mid-American Conference, as his production grew by leaps and bounds. He eventually won MAC Freshman of the Year and was an All-MAC honorable mention. He also gained nation-wide buzz, as he was selected to the U-19 World Championship training camp for the U.S.
Despite the rise of McCrea’s national profile, there is no jealousy among members of The Five. On the contrary, they have supported him even more.
This year, Oldham and Nuiriankh have both received an increase in minutes as a result of their play. Oldham turned a question mark coming into the season into an exclamation point, as he has been one of the best young point guards in the MAC. Nuiriankh’s defensive efforts were enough to earn Witherspoon’s trust and a spot into the starting lineup.
Even though they have yet to join the rest of The Five in the starting lineup, Raley-Ross and Downing are using this opportunity to learn from their starting brethren.
“With them three starting, it helps me and Corey get ready for next year,” Downing said. “They are in the position in that they can help us out; they can talk to us if we start out a game nervous, because they have already been there.”
It can be depressing for kids that go away to school. Homesickness often occurs in freshmen across college campuses, and especially for athletes, who travel often.
Enter McCrea. Being the ‘local’ kid, from nearby Newark, NY, his house – as well as his mom’s cooking – has taken center stage as the guys look forward to Mama McCrea’s culinary wizardry and warm hospitality.
“It’s always good to have a home cooked meal,” McCrea said. “My mom comes up once a month and cooks for us. The guys come up for Christmas too. I spend a lot of time with the guys there.”
Witherspoon loves the fact that these guys can come together.
“It speaks highly of the university that we can attract people and families,” Witherspoon said. “When they got here they envisioned some success and they felt comfortable. And when they got around each other they just felt very good about everything.”
Getting the Team Involved
It’s easy for outsiders to label The Five as a clique on the team. It wouldn’t be shocking if other players on the team felt ostracized or not part of the club. When the group first came together, Witherspoon worried about potential problems with sects developing on the squad.
“I saw [a clique-like atmosphere developing] early on,” Witherspoon said. “Now, we have gotten through that. We just had to get them to understand that they needed to bring everybody into the fold. They needed to broaden their comfort with everyone on the team, and that takes time. It’s just the evolvement of a team.”
The concept gets interesting knowing that although the senior class of forwards Titus Robinson, Mitchell Watt and Dave Barnett, and guard Zach Filzen will be gone next year, redshirt sophomore forward Will Regan will be a major part of the team’s plans. Transferring from Virginia, he is a guy that has a strong chance of playing major minutes for the Bulls.
Also, junior guard Tony Watson II has an excellent chance to start, especially considering his ability to shoot the ball and play defense off the bench this season.
Those two guys, as well as the possible rise of guys like freshman forward Xavier Ford, loom as potential threats to The Five starting as a group. But they aren’t worried about that. “Everybody knows what we have and how we came in, so our positive energy and our chemistry feeds off and brings everybody closer,” Oldham said. “We will make any transition smooth. We are not gonna shoo anyone away. If you wanna come in and help the team we’re all for it. We want to win.”
With the future in their hands, this group agrees that Buffalo will remember them because of their swagger and talent, on and off the court.
“Our charisma, how we dress, how we talk, how we carry ourselves makes us special,” McCrea said. “We are honest to people, there’s no fake stuff [with us]. We just keep it real. And it helps that everybody here can really play ball.”
With the experience of playing in the MAC Tournament last season, and competing at the highest level with the best that the MAC has to offer, the sky is the limit for this crew.
With the growing talent of McCrea, there can be concerns of him taking his talents to the next level early. With this in mind, McCrea has a message to all of Buffalo’s fans.
“I definitely plan on staying here all four years with my four brothers,” McCrea said. “We can’t split up.”
With that said, expect two more years of the Five continuing to rewrite Buffalo Bulls history.
“I think that there’s some exciting times in store going forward,” Witherspoon said.
Oldham, never at a loss for words, agreed.
“We’re excited,” Oldham said. “Aren’t you?”
By NATE SMITH, Sports Editor