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Tsuj’s Ten: College basketball, 1/6

Photo by Dave Marino

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Conference play—especially in the big six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC 12, SEC)—is a beautiful thing. Ranked opponents go head-to-head several times per week, and basketball fans are blessed with historic rivalries like Duke vs. UNC, Ohio State vs. Michigan and Kansas vs. Kansas State. There’s so much hate!

Just for kicks, here’s last year’s “One Shining Moment” theme from the NCAA Tournament.


Never a shortage of hot cheerleaders, awkward dancers in the stands or MoMo Jones kissing cameras. Luther Vandross’ legacy lives on.

1) Trouncing Buffalo State: I thought about writing a recap of UB’s 111-59 spanking of Buffalo State, but there were no interesting angles that didn’t feel forced. Division I school slaughters nearby Division III program because the former needed a game to shake off the three-games-in-27-days rust. ESPN didn’t even list the game in its profile of the Bulls, and it felt like an exhibition game even though no one listed it as such.

2) A “Spoon"ful: Bulls head coach Reggie Witherspoon has been harping on his team’s concentration (he sounded a lot like the Bandits’ Darris Kilgour), the ability to sustain focus for a full 40 minutes rather than bearing down for five to six minute stretches and then unraveling. Like most sports, college basketball is a game of runs and momentum swings, and tournament-caliber teams have more sustained scoring streaks and fewer lengthy slumps. Here’s what Witherspoon said during the post-game presser after Buffalo State about the focuses of his practices during break:

“It’s an ancient secret,” Witherspoon joked. “We’ve challenged them. We’ve had some unique things they’ve thrown at them. We’ve had our guys play 5 vs. 7 to try to challenge our guys to be assertive with the basketball. We’ve done that for extended minutes. There have been [game] situations where we’re playing well for five, six, seven minutes, and then we come undone with one mistake. Then we get down, and that mistake might lead to another mistake. In some cases [in practice], we’ll turn the clock off—we’ll play offense [alone] for two minutes straight and force them not to turn it over and be strong with the ball. We’ve challenged them beyond what they’d see in a game. Tonight, we were assertive with the basketball, and we have to continue to be that way.”

3) More than they let on: At the beginning of Witherspoon’s answer, when he discussed the outside-of-the-box drills, he shared an inside-joke style laugh with Mitchell Watt, his senior center. There’s clearly more to what Witherspoon shared in his response to the media, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bulls were thankful to actually play a game rather than practice—not only because of the long drought, but because Witherspoon is a demanding perfectionist.

4) Mitch chimes in: “Some of us that play extended minutes, you’re out there for a lot of ups and downs. You have to be cautious when you’re going through a high and your team is playing really well, because you have to keep everyone focused on the play at hand and keep everybody on the same page. The huddles help a lot—and to the normal person watching the game, to see us huddle up, they might think we’re just calling a play—but the huddles help us to talk about what we see out there.”

5) Why the zone? The UB Bulls have played more zone defense this year than in any previous year under Reggie Witherspoon—which spans the last 13 seasons. The Buffalo News’ Rodney McKissic, who has covered less UB basketball this year due to being assigned the Buffalo Bills’ beat, asked Witherspoon why the zone has been a focus.

“We have a long team. We have a lot of length and size to [the zone], and it gave us a chance to toy with the zone and see if we can get good at it,” Witherspoon said. “That, coupled with the end of last season when we used [the zone] on the road against Western Michigan and Miami at home. We said, ‘If we’re going to use it, let’s see if we can get good at it.’ We played extended minutes at Dayton—the whole game, in fact—and BYU and Temple we played a lot of it as well. Our initial zone defense was decent despite not playing it for years.”

6) Buffalo’s two problems: According to the Bulls’ head coach, conceding offensive rebounds and committing too many turnovers have been the primary problems. While it’s difficult to rebound out of a zone defense—more awareness is needed to block out opponents when you’re not in man-to-man—the Bulls allowed 16 offensive boards to Temple and turned the ball over 20 times against BYU. Good opponents can exploit flaws, and that’s just what the Owls and Cougars did.

7) Canisius loses to other MAAC doormat: In a battle of the two teams with the worst overall records in the MAAC, Canisius’ late comeback on the road against St. Peter’s fell just short. Read Canisius Griffin sports editor Nick Veronica’s take on the outcome, which includes Harold Washington’s vanishing act for most of the game and dramatic reappearance in the final 90 seconds.

8) Playin’ small: The Griffins have resorted to small ball quite a bit this year, and Tom Parrotta limited the minutes of Josiah Heath (12) and Kevin Bleeker (20) to combat the Peacocks’ four-guard lineup. This approach backfired for the Griffs, as the team conceded seven offensive rebounds to 6’4 St. Peter’s guard Chris Burke, and neither Bleeker or Heath, who’ve traded solid games this season, were on the floor enough to make an impact. Make the opponents adjust to you, Griffs! Canisius’ record stands at 3-11 overall, 0-4 in conference play. The Griffins are home next on Jan. 13 against Marist.

9) Simmons isn’t quite ready for press conferences: Buffalo State’s star guard Jake Simmons heaped the blame on his teammates after the Bengals’ pummeling against the Bulls. “Back at home, I’ve been playing with and against players from Division I overseas my whole life. I just wish my team was on the same page as me,” Simmons said. “I think it would have been better if we were all on the same page.” There was a 10-second awkward silence, and everyone went their separate ways.

10) Big Blake update
: No, I’m not talking about “Lob City,” even though I’m one of the few Buffalonians that’s not up-in-arms about MSG’s blacking out of the Sabres. No one else is praising the fact that Time Warner subscribers now get NBA TV?! Chris Paul lets Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan play above the rim, exactly where the pair of pogo-stick big men want to be. I’m referring to the pride of Hamburg, Michigan Wolverines forward Blake McLimans, who knocked down a three-ball in seven minutes of action against #12 Indiana last night. He’s 3-4 from downtown on the season, pleading his case for more minutes and the occasionally heat-check from 28-feet.

BONUS: Here are some games to watch for the weekend:

Tonight: 9:00 p.m., Niagara at Iona, ESPNU.
Saturday: 4:00 p.m., Notre Dame vs. Louisville, ESPNU.
—4:00 p.m., Marquette at Syracuse, SNY on Time Warner
—7:00 p.m., Kent State at Buffalo on TWC 13 (but you can always attend this one!)

TAGGED: canisius griffins, college basketball, jake simmons, mac hoops, mitchell watt, reggie witherspoon, tsuj's ten, university at buffalo bulls

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