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Tsuj’s Ten: Bulls find efficiency, MAAC schools face tests

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

In a season that’s been plagued by close conference losses, errant shooting and poor decision-making, the UB Bulls finally put together an impressive 40-minute effort in torching the Central Michigan Chippewas 91-73.

“For the first time, we played from tip to horn against a zone defense and had some pretty good success with it,” Witherspoon said.

Reggie Witherspoon’s Bulls shot over 50% against a Division I opponent for the first time since Dec. 5, as UB hit at a sparkling 58% clip for the game. Reserve center Cameron Downing notched a career-high 21 points, while junior forward Auraum Nuiriankh was perfect on 12 free-throws en route to a career-high of 18 as well.

1) Paint job: The Bulls manhandled Keno Davis’ Chips in the paint, outscoring them 42-30 in the post and doubling the West Division foe in second-chance points 18-9. Junior star Javon McCrea continued his torrid streak with 17 points—on 8-of-10 shooting—and added eight rebounds, while Downing was a behemoth under the Chippewas basket, establishing position at will and displaying his usual soft shooting touch.

“We all knew [that the Chippewas] were undersized, so we all knew that we’d have an advantage inside,” Downing explained.

“As long as me and Javon and the rest of the bigs had big nights down low, then we’d be able to open up the floor for the guards—and they’ve been shooting well lately—so we were able to also pass the ball out and give them some open looks.”

2) Tiny Chippewas: Life hasn’t been very fair for Davis and the 9-11 overall (2-5 in Mid-American Conference) Chippewas, as the first-year head coach had to rebuild a program that lost its top three 2012 contributors to transfer after the firing of previous head coach Ernie Zeigler and a fourth to graduation. That’s 46 points of last year’s 62 per game, a devastating loss that makes 2013’s 66-64 win over MAAC leader Niagara and 73-67 home win over Bowling Green seem a lot more impressive.

Davis substitutes liberally and includes six freshmen in his rotation, and he simply has no size to work with. 6’8, 232-pound senior Zach Saylor just returned from injury, while 6’8, 209-pound John Simons—largely a perimeter player—is Davis’ heaviest starter. With 250-pound McCrea and 260-pound Downing, Buffalo had little trouble dominating inside—the Bulls shot 22-of-33 from inside the arc.

3) Crisp passing: In a sport that glorifies shooting, dribbling, dunking and steals, passing frequently is the ugly stepchild—unselfish ball movement may be one of the game’s least sexy traits unless you’re a basketball purist. Still, moving the ball rapidly is a very effective tactic, especially in exposing zone defenses. A veteran coach like Witherspoon recognizes this and harps on it to his players.

“If we pass the ball better, we’re going to shoot it better,” the Bulls’ 14-year head coach claimed. “That’s something we have to keep working on every day—a lot of that is vision, anticipation and knowing where guys are going to be. I thought us having 21 assists on 30 field goals is progress.”

4) Back-court evaluation: It’s no secret that UB’s back-court is a glaring weakness, as Jarod Oldham’s long-term injury has forced seldom-used players into action and thrust heavy minutes upon inexperienced guards. As the UB Spectrum’s Aaron Mansfield alluded to, Skeete’s growth has been exponential—he’s a commanding presence on the floor now, and Witherspoon’s leash on the true freshman has lightened a bit.

“Skeete’s doing a pretty good job of being steady,” the tough-love commander Witherspoon admitted, “but he can actually play better.”

The Ontario native is still prone to the occasional lapsed assignment or careless giveaway, but that’s expected for a freshman, and when he’s playing smart, instinctive basketball—he’s tremendous. He’s smooth off the dribble, generally a smart passer and his shot is beginning to fall with regularity. The sky’s the limit for Skeete, and if he keeps receiving 32 minutes a night until Oldham returns, then he’ll mature even more quickly.

5) Slim Javon: While the Big 4 has its share of talented players like Niagara’s Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason, St. Bonaventure’s Demitrius Conger and Canisius’ Billy Baron and Chris Manhertz, they all pale in comparison to the natural ability of UB’s McCrea—evidenced by his Big 4 Preseason Player of the Year distinction. As The Buffalo News’ Bob DiCesare touched on today, the junior is already climbing the ladder of UB’s record book.

McCrea is noticeably lighter and quicker this year—even as the season’s progressed—and it’s paid dividends for him. He doesn’t miss as frequently close to the bucket, he’s exceptionally “springy” on put-backs and on the offensive glass, and he can log 30+ minutes with relatively little effort.

“I think I’m in better shape than last year, so it’s helping me move quicker. I also got like, lighter shoes, so that’s helped me too,” said the typically terse McCrea.

6) More from Javon?: The lynchpin of UB’s offense and defense, the Bulls will go as far as McCrea can take them. His 19.6 points per game in seven conference tilts plants him atop the Mid-American Conference, and he’s third in rebounding, fifth in field goal percentage, 11th in free-throw percentage and second in blocks and offensive rebounds. It’s Witherspoon’s duty to push McCrea to the limit, ensuring that his potential is fulfilled and he graduates from UB without any regrets.

“We have to keep reminding [McCrea] that he’s got to be aggressive. He can’t just sit back and say ‘this is good enough.’ When you get numbers that quick, sometimes you can just say ‘that’s good enough.’ The reality is—[a college career] does go quickly by—after a while, it’s gone, his four years are up. Then it’s ‘oh, man, I could have had another 50 rebounds. You’re not adding onto them after another year and a half, it’s over! If he’s going to put these numbers at a point where [future Bulls] go look back in 20 years and they can’t believe it, then he has to stay aggressive.”

7) Staying measured: A win over Central Michigan doesn’t all of a sudden propel the Bulls into MAC-favorite status, unfortunately. Buffalo hasn’t suffered defeat to a MAC West school since Feb. 12, 2011—a 78-65 loss to Eastern Michigan—and the blue-and-white clad team is still several games behind 7-0 Akron and 6-0 Ohio. Progress is all that can be asked of the Bulls, and improvement is rarely smooth.

“I tell people—sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back [for our team],” Witherspoon said. “It’s not a steady, rapid improvement, but we’re going in the right direction.”

8) Niagara hosts Iona: The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s two top teams square-off tonight at the Gallagher Center, as the 9-1 Purple Eagles host the 8-2 Gaels (7 p.m., ESPN3).

Tim Cluess’ Iona team is always a threat to reach the 100-point plateau, as Arizona transfer MoMo Jones (20 ppg in conference) and Sean Armand (17 ppg) are in the top five in conference scoring.

The Purple Eagles are winners of their last six and stand at 8-1 at the Gallagher Center this season. Of any MAAC school, Joe Mihalich’s club is the best-equipped to match Iona’s pace and scoring—Niagara averages 74 points per game in conference play to Iona’s 79. Gaels’ freshman A.J. English was ruled out for the season last night—his 22 minutes, seven points and 41% three-point percentage will be missed.

The Purple Eagles are one-point favorites according to Vegas Insider.

9) Griffs welcome Greyhounds: Fifteen miles south, Canisius (6-4 in MAAC) greets Loyola (7-3) in a crucial home tilt at the Koessler Athletic Center (7 p.m., Time Warner Sports Channel). Dumped by Iona 79-71 last weekend, Loyola enters tonight as 4.5-point underdogs to Jim Baron’s Griffs. Canisius looks to rebound from Sunday afternoon’s agonizing defeat to rival Niagara, as Billy Baron’s buzzer-beating three-pointer was deemed too late.

If you’ve followed the MAAC for a few years, several names on Loyola will be familiar. Versatile Erik Etherly and pure-scorer Dylon Cormier are the foundation of the attack, while wily sharp-shooter Robert Olson patrols the perimeter.

The trio of upperclassmen accounts for 44 of Loyola’s 65-point average, and head coach Jimmy Patsos has kept a tight rotation in 2013 with four players averaging over 30 minutes per contest.

Ultra-quick point guard R.J. Williams, who stands only 5’8, has returned from a non-academic-related suspension that prevented him from suiting up for the entire first semester. He’s galvanized a Greyhound attack that sorely missed a distributor, and he’ll trouble Canisius’ guards on the defensive end tonight. The lone advantage for the Griffs? It won’t be too hard to shoot over the diminutive sophomore.

10) By the numbers:

Canisius, 13-8—Kenpom Ranking: 108 (Improved by 12, so +12)
Niagara, 13-8—Kenpom Ranking: 127 (+15)
St. Bonaventure, 9-10—Kenpom Ranking: 110 (-4)
UB, 8-13—Kenpom Ranking: 181 (+25)

Previous Tsuj’s Tens:

Jan. 24
Jan. 18
Jan. 15
Jan. 10
Jan. 3
Dec. 30
Dec. 25
Dec. 22
Dec. 13
Dec. 8
Dec. 4
Nov. 30
Nov. 27
Nov. 19

(Photos of Griffs and Purple Eagles courtesy of Cody Osborne from Sunday’s clash—see the full gallery here. UB photos courtesy of Robin David Brown.)

TAGGED: cameron downing, canisius griffins, central michigan chippewas, iona gaels, jarryn skeete, javon mccrea, mac basketball, niagara purple eagles, reggie witherspoon, ub bulls

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