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University at Buffalo men’s basketball: 2011-12 preview

Photo of UB Bulls by Dave Marino

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The Buffalo Bulls may have lost their leader—effervescent point guard Byron Mulkey—to graduation, but the 2011-12 version of the local MAC team may actually be an improvement over the squad that fell to Kent State in the conference quarterfinals last year. 

The real edge for the Bulls is team continuity.  Aside from replacing floor general Mulkey, whose play declined sharply down the stretch of his senior season, the rest of the Bulls’ depth chart looks similar to the one that went 17-12 (8-8 in the MAC) last season.  In early October, the university extended the contract of Bulls’ head coach Reggie Witherspoon, who will lead the team through the 2015-16 campaign.  Buffalo won’t have to deal with integrating new players, adopting a new system or growing accustomed to a new coach.  Here’s the detailed preview:

Backcourt:  The true challenge—and one that might frustrate Bulls fans—is replacing Mulkey with a passable starter that won’t cost the team wins.  In some respects, sophomore Jarod Oldham and junior Tony Watson II bring different assets to the lineup—Oldham is the superior defender, while Watson II is more “instant offense.”  Expect Witherspoon to settle on Oldham as the starter—Witherspoon loves guards who pressure relentlessly—but if the Bulls are trailing, there’s a strong chance that Watson II will see more minutes. 

Filzen, the main reason the Bulls topped the MAC in three-point shooting percentage last year (37.6% as a team, 41.2% as an individual), returns with a more versatile game.  His ability to pump-fake beyond the three-point arc before stepping up for a mid-range jumper forced defenses to guard him as more than a catch-and-shoot scorer, but he’ll still need to avoid long cold spells and improve defensively.  To add even more pressure, the senior guard must accept a hearty portion of the leadership void.

Frontcourt:  Even though he was the final cut for the under-19 USA basketball team for the World Championships, Javon McCrea has the highest ceiling of any basketball player in UB’s history.  Basketball Prospectus has taken notice of the Newark High School graduate’s talent, ranking him #30 in the list of best Division I basketball players—even though he’s never started a collegiate game.  Will Coach Witherspoon remove the training wheels and play the burly 6’6 forward for 30 minutes a night?  We don’t care whether or not he starts—he just needs more time on the floor.

Last year’s three starters, Titus Robinson, Mitchell Watt and David Barnett will continue to vie for minutes in the frontcourt.  Watt, the team’s best shot-blocker, causes opponents fits with his tremendous wingspan and hustle, but foul trouble and erratic offense impede his progress.  Barnett didn’t show the confidence to shoot for much of last season, but when he did, he hit at a steady clip (44%) and was lauded for his efforts guarding excellent MAC swingmen Xavier Silas and Trey Zeigler. 

Bench: The options here are plentiful as well—at least in the frontcourt.  Whoever doesn’t start from the McCrea/Watt/Robinson/Barnett foursome will still be relied upon for 20 minutes a night, while heralded freshman Xavier Ford (read the UB Spectrum’s article here on Ford’s background) will offer an attacking mindset off the bench. 

Auraum Nuiriankh, who earned minutes over Barnett for stretches last year, is a capable defender that Witherspoon seems to love, and Corey Raley-Ross is a raw athletic talent that should step into the shooting guard role once Filzen graduates.

Prediction:  Given Buffalo’s non-conference schedule (brutal away match-ups against Brigham Young and Temple in late December) and the parity in the MAC, the Bulls will finish 18-8, but 10-6 in the MAC.

TAGGED: byron mulkey, javon mccrea, mac basketball, mitchell watt, reggie witherspoon, ub bulls, university at buffalo, zach filzen

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