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Tsuj’s Ten: College basketball, 1/30

Photo by Don Nieman

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The University at Buffalo Bulls did exactly what they needed to do this weekend—romp over 2-17 Northern Illinois without overextending their starters. UB, buoyed by the dismissal of NIU’s leading scorer from the team, coasted to a fairly easy 15-point win, 74-59.

1) No road collapse: Even though the Huskies were short-handed and struggling to begin with, Buffalo managed to silence its road demons. Reggie Witherspoon was able to roll out all 13 players—no Bull played over 28 minutes on Saturday, and only one—Javon McCrea—played over 23. As the conference schedule begins to heat up, staying healthy and expanding the rotation are two very important goals. Starting Wednesday against Ball State (7 p.m., Alumni Arena), the Bulls play five times in two weeks.

2) Tracking non-Filzen threes: It’s no secret that the Bulls are more dangerous when Zach Filzen isn’t the only UB player hitting from long distance. With Dave Barnett, Tony Watson II and Auraum Nuiriankh showing confidence and a willingness to hoist from outside, opposing defenses are forced to guard tightly on the perimeter instead of simply shadowing Filzen—which, at times this season, hasn’t been a stiff challenge.

3) STATS, STATS, STATS, STATS (everybody?): When UB started MAC play 1-2, the Bulls’ three-point shooting—excluding Filzen—was 6-29 (21%). In the ensuing four-game win streak, non-Filzen shots beyond the arc improved to 24-57 (42%). I realize that one stat does not tell the whole story—and credit Filzen’s new-found assertiveness over the last four games—but more outside shooting options have certainly been a boon for the Bulls’ offense.

4) Props to Barnett: A lot was made of Titus Robinson’s acceptance of a sixth man role in his senior year, but Dave Barnett’s similar willingness to leave the starting five has jump-started his own play. It’s possible that he feels less of a scoring burden when coming off the bench, and his defense and hustle are hugely valuable to the Bulls (it will be more noticeable next year when he’s gone). The ultimate glue-guy, Barnett has second-guessed his shot throughout his career in Buffalo, but he’s found a little trust in his stroke—5-12 in his last three games. Head coach Reggie Witherspoon has said on several occasions that Barnett is one of his team’s best outside shooters, but it hasn’t always translated smoothly into games. A former walk-on with an unrivaled work ethic, Barnett has gotten the most out of his ability—and frankly, there’s a sense of pride that Western New York produces student-athletes like him.

5) Inside of the Insider: ESPN Insider’s college basketball expert Joe Lunardi speculated one week ago that it would make sense for UB to play George Mason during the Bracketbuster weekend (Feb. 17 to 19). Well, the opponent will be announced later tonight (6:30 p.m. on ESPNU), and whoever is chosen will be a good measuring stick for Buffalo, especially considering the game will be on the road and nationally televised. GMU leads the Colonial Athletic Association at 10-1 but has yet to face second place Virginia Commonwealth—the Patriots rank 14th in the Mid-Major Top 25 poll as of Jan. 23. Would I love to see VCU or Butler instead? Probably. Coaching against tournament-tested Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens (fear the glasses!) would be valuable for Witherspoon.

(One final (mildly perverse) MAC note while I’m at it: Northern Illinois has signed a fellow by the name of Daveon “Petey” Balls for next season. I can imagine that UB’s True Blue will enjoy when NIU visits in the coming years.)

6) Optimism at Canisius: There isn’t much room for optimism on the floor of the Koessler Athletic Center, but head coach Tom Parrotta has managed to keep his players up-beat. The reality for the MAAC’s 1-10 bottom-feeder is that this season is a rebuilding year, a chance for Harold Washington to get accustomed to the D1 level, a chance for Gaby Belardo to show his toughness and a chance for valuable playing time for youngsters like Josiah Heath, Franklin Milian and Kevin Bleeker. The shining light at the end of the tunnel is the eligibility of Freddy Asprilla, Isaac Sosa and Jordan Heath next season, as the infusion of talent will make Canisius both bigger and deeper.

7) Pessimism at Canisius: It’s not easy to lose gracefully, and the Griffins aren’t really doing that. Gaby Belardo’s body language was terrible in Sunday’s 70-52 loss at home against Loyola (MD). He’s still in pain from his chronic lower back injury—his usual out-of-control forays down the lane look stiffer than usual, and the results have been woeful. The heckler seated behind me was obnoxiously vocal in his demand to see Belardo traded for draft picks (obviously not possible), but the 4-16 showing from the field was embarrassing, as many of the shots were ill-advised and not close. Canisius plays at Iona on Thursday, and a 50-point loss is not outside the realm of possibility.

8) Bright spots: Two sequences in the second half showed growth in Chris Manhertz’s back-to-the-basket game. The sophomore forward—known more for his ferocious rebounding ability than any post skills—demonstrated good footwork in pivoting twice to deposit hook shots over lanky Greyhound Shane Walker. Manhertz made all four of his shots in the second frame, and it would be a smart decision by Parrotta to include the 6’6, 235 pound beast more frequently in the offensive game-plan. Think of next year’s Manhertz/Asprilla duo as an even stronger-but-considerably-less-refined tandem than UB’s Mitchell Watt and Javon McCrea.

9) Other positives: While fully admitting that it’s painful to watch Canisius play this year, the Griffins haven’t quit yet. In the two weekend losses, Parrotta chose to start four guards and implemented a hard-trapping 1-3-1 zone defense that briefly perplexed both Manhattan and Loyola. While the creativity on the defensive end is encouraging, the Griffins are banking on forcing turnovers and transition buckets to jump-start (read: carry) their offense. When there’s no backcourt depth to speak of, Canisius simply gets worn down, exposed and thoroughly dominated in second halves. The energy expended on the defensive end has noticeably clipped Harold Washington’s offense, too. On a positive note, Franklin Milian looked more comfortable and aggressive yesterday (had to finish this point with a positive!).

10) Buckeyes too much for Michigan: In my gushing over Trey Burke last week, it was rather obvious how I feel about Michigan. Loved ‘em since the Fab Five—if you haven’t seen that ESPN 30-for-30, I’d recommend it because, while Rose/Webber/Howard are all clearly jerks, they were trendsetters that truly did change the culture of basketball. To Sunday, where the Ohio State Buckeyes thrashed a finesse Wolverine squad 64-49. Michigan big man Jon Horford—out for the last 13 games with a foot injury and may miss the season—was dearly missed, as his replacement, Jordan Morgan, is more of an eighth-man banger-type than he is a starting center. It’s very evident why Wolverines’ head coach John Beilein has trimmed Evan Smotrycz’s minutes, as the 6’9 forward is incredibly soft on the glass and a poor defender—he made 6’4, 205 pound Buckeye swing-man Lenzelle Smith Jr. (17 points, 12 rebounds) look like Dwight Howard.

BONUS: I’m still not done talking about Michigan, but that last ‘graph was getting unhealthily long. Unless the Wolverines receive a favorable draw in the NCAA Tournament—of teams devoid of any physical toughness—Beilein’s club won’t advance past the second round. I love what Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are doing, but Michigan won’t be a real contender until the advent of the Mitch McGary show (YouTube video of the Michigan signee below).

[Header photo by Buffalo.com photographer Don Nieman]

TAGGED: canisius griffins, college basketball, dave barnett, gaby belardo, michigan wolverines, reggie witherspoon, tom parrotta, tsuj's ten, university at buffalo bulls

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