Its finally here!! College basketball is just about to dawn upon us, which means another season of decent mid-major basketball, more discussion on whether or not to fire Reggie Witherspoon, more talk about how Buffalo is still only the 4th best program in the MAC, and roller coaster emotions from both fans and myself. This years basketball team is one that is sure to grab your attention, and possibly frustrate you at the same time.
This season, Buffalo is predicted to finish 4th in the MAC East by the very Ohio biased MAC Media Poll after finishing with the second beset conference record last year. Ohio and Akron are the two favorites to win the conference and represent the MAC in the big dance since sadly it is still going to be only a one bid conference. I would love for the MAC to be a 2 bid league, but the only chance I think there is of that is if Ohio has a stellar year that is worthy of a selection into the big dance, and another team wins the MAC Tournament. Can it be Buffalo this year? Sure it certainly can be, but I wouldn't count on it.
Buffalo comes into the season losing 3.5 very important players from last year (only 3.5 for me because Filzen was a one trick pony whose defense never really got any better, and couldn't do anything else if his shot was off). Forwards Mitchell Watt and Titus Robinson are both playing professional basketball overseas after accumulating the most wins for any Bulls players in the D-1 era. Dave Barnett was the glue to this team, so replacing him may be an even bigger challenge than replacing the athletic forwards.
This Years Team-
Luckily the Bulls are still returning 3 starters from last years team, and all 3 of them are underclassmen who will be back for the 2013-2014 team as well. Jarod Oldham will be running the PG position again this year after his exceptional year last year. His stellar defense/rebounding combined with his ability to run the offense made him made favorite player on the team last season. With an assist to turnover ration of better than 2-1, he made himself one of the most valuable PG's in the MAC. I sometimes read "I guess Oldham will be running the point this year" as if he is some terrible player with little value. Sure he is not a scoring threat and needs to improve, but on a team that had plenty of scorers around him he did exactly what you need you PG to do. Run the offense, be a leader on the floor, and get your team the highest percentage shot possible. He's a great fit for this team (as he was last years team) and can turn into an elite player in the MAC if he is able to score a little more.
Auraum Nuiriankh is another returning starter who has a lot of expectations. His diversified offensive game makes him a huge threat for opponents, but he has big shoes to fill. He is already a better offensive player than Dave Barnett was, but Reggie has typically likes his 3 guard to be more of a rebounder/defender/dirty work player. Auraum is not that at all, although he has the ability to be a great swingman. He only averaged 2.2 rebounds per game last year, not very typical of Reggie's starting 3 guard. Much of the Bulls success will rely on Auraums ability to be effective on both the offensive end, as well as on defense.
Javon McCrea doesn't need much of an introduction. We all know how talented a player he is and I think we can pencil him in for 18 and 8. With Mitchell Watt leaving, McCrea will be more aggressive this year and will have moments when he carries the team on his back. He's a solid defender who can use some work boxing out, but a little worried to see how he does on the defensive end down low this year. Watt's ability to block shots last year made everyone's job a little easier last year, so I hope Javon can stay out of foul trouble so he can be the Bulls primary scorer and stay in the game.
Will Reagan may be the best recruit the Bulls have had over the past 10 years, so based on talent alone I think he'll be an immediate contributor to this team. He's mature being this is his 3rd year of college, and he had last year to learn the offense and grow some chemistry with the rest of the team in practice. He has a tough job of filling the shoes of the MAC player of the year, and it may take him a little bit of time to show his talent since he hasn't really been on the court in 3 years. I have no doubts that he'll be the 3rd best player on the team by the time the season is over.
Tony Watson is an interesting player for this team who is going to have a fairly big role. He was brought in as a PG but a combination of his shooting ability and the fact that Oldham is just simply a better PG has made him an impact bench player with the ability to shoot from anywhere. There were times last year when my complete dislike as a player flip-flopped to me loving him being on the floor. I guess I just prefer him as an off the ball player as opposed to being on the ball. His defense and rebounding needs to improve, but on a team with limited outside shooters Tony Watson is going to be key.
Cameron Downing and Xavier Ford will both be coming off the bench this year and will be competing to be Reggie's 3rd big man. Buffalo pretty much ran only 3 forwards last year (mostly because all 3 were very talented giving the Bulls the best front court in the conference) and I have a feeling Reggie is looking to do the same this year. Downing and Ford have different problems though. Downing isn't athletic enough, Ford isn't big enough. Downing doesn't defend well enough, Ford isn't experienced enough. I don't have a horse in the race but I would prefer Reggie run the 8 man line-up of last year as opposed to his 10.5 man line-up he has in years past. One of these players stepping up will be the key to that.
Corey Raley-Ross is an interesting player. He attacks the basketball better than any guard has for the Bulls in years. His athleticism and size can make him an excellent player, but his combination of mediocre defense and very inconsistent shooting has kept him out of the line-up. If you couldn't take any minutes away from Filzen when you're that talented then something must be wrong. I would love to see Raley-Ross be an impact player for this team, but if he isn't contributing in the non-conference portion of this season then don't expect to see him take off the warm-ups late in the year.
Jarryn Skeete and Stan Wier are this years incoming freshman guards, and both have the potential to be excellent Bulls players as their college career continues. Skeete is a flashy point guard who will see some minutes early in the season, but I think Reggie is looking for more of a ball control PG. Skeete will dazzle you in the minutes he gets this season, but this is still Oldhams team to run so don't expect to see him too much. Wier on the other hand has the talent and position to be an impact player this season. Wier has the size, shooting ability, and all around game to be a Rodney Pierce like player. This Bulls team is begging for shooters and Wier probably is the best one on the team before he even steps onto the court. Unfortunately knee problems will keep him sidelined for an indefinite period of time.
Andre McPhail is another incoming freshman who has a diverse game. I don't really know too much about him, but from what I see and know he is kind of a hybrid between Titus Robinson and Javon McCrea. He has McCrea's stocky build with an attack the basket kind of athleticism. His post game needs a lot of work so don't expect to him to see much of the floor this year with more experience elsewhere on the team.
All in all this is still a very good Bulls team who would shock me if they failed to finish above 500. This team will rebound the ball very well using its size, and will play very solid defense. If Downing can be the 3rd forward then the team will always average at least 235lbs in the front court. They may not be super tall, but rebounding and solid defense down low usually depends more on weight and strength, which this team has. Plus the back court may be starting 6'3", 6'6", and possibly 6'3" at shooting guard. The 2 achilles heels for this team will be its ability to shoot from the outside, and it may lack a little bit of athleticism down low. The Bulls had an extremely athletic/offensively diverse front court last year (which made them far and away the best in the conference) to a team that may see 3 dunks all year from its forwards. Maybe I'm just so used to seeing Titus and Mitch on this team that I'm too worried about their absence. Regardless, the McCrea and Reagan will be plenty good down low and may end up being better for this team since they can use their strength to get to the rim. Getting points from the guards is my bigger worries. Raley-Ross may not even be good enough to see the floor, Nuiriankh is still just potential with a lot to prove, Watson doesn't attack the rim very well at all, Oldham isn't really out not there to score, Wier may not even be healthy enough to play this year, and Skeete is just a freshman. There's plenty of talent and diversity in the back court, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.