It's to a far lesser degree than on the gridiron, and losses to Niagara and Canisius and the mental mistakes that blew a 7-point lead against Manhattan hurt more (to me at least) than the season-ending failings against Bowling Green and San Diego State, but you could feasibly pick up the narrative around the end of the football season and drop them right on top of basketball's out of conference slate.
I had mixed expectations coming into the 2013-14 season in Amherst. Unless Majok Majok at Ball State or Maurice Ndour at Ohio really blew up, UB was boasting the top frontcourt in the conference and had an intriguing mix of upperclass experience and new blood in the back court. Bobby Hurley was a big, big hire that drew a lot of attention and obviously has experience with the very highest level, but he would also be a first-time head coach whose career brought him to a Division 1 top job before it was ready to start kindergarten. He had played under two all-time great coaches in his father and Coach K, but had not yet taken the role of top dog himself.
I can't speak for everyone, and I'm not sure if there even was a consensus, but my feelings coming into this season were that it was highly unlikely that any MAC team earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance, and if it took all the way to the first conference game against Northern Illinois for everything between the new coaches, the new system, the new players, and the old players to gel, then I was ok with that. After seeing what Coach Jack has done with the Ladies after her first OOC slate in Buffalo, I think it's clear that there's some legitimacy to needing some time to build chemistry, even for teams who will ultimately take a significant step forward.
If you had told me that UB would be 6-4 heading into MAC play I would have had two reactions:
(1) I thought we had 11 games scheduled, what's up with that?
(2) OK, probably lost a winnable game or two, maybe pulled out a tight game, but clearly the team hasn't dropped off a cliff.
That said, a look at how things have gone so far:
|@ Texas A&M||L 58-82|
|West Virginia Wesleyan||W 80-60|
|Robert Morris||W 81-66|
|St. Bonaventure||W 78-73|
|Manhattan (N)||L 81-84 (OT)|
|South Dakota State||Postponed because apparently "flights" were "cancelled"|
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>I'd like to congratulate & commend Northern Iowa Wrestling program 4 being true competitors & traveling 2 Buffalo this weekend 4 their match</p>— Bobby Hurley (@BobbyHurley11) <a href="https://twitter.com/BobbyHurley11/statuses/419537790083530752">January 4, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
So 6-4 with a missed game against a Jackrabbits team that would have provided a nice matchup for the Bulls but instead allows for a 10 day layoff. A handful of good wins in Bonaventure and Drexel, some cruddy losses in Canisius and Niagara, and a gutwrenching loss for New York's Flagship Basketball team in Brooklyn against Manhattan, who is usually located in the Bronx.
Some things that stand out to me:
New Guys - One of the big immediate aftereffects of the Witherspoon firing was the immediate discontent of Reggie's top recruit Shannon Evans. Evans, who once scored 55 in a high school game, made noise on Twitter about reopening his recruiting, but excitedly reaffirmed his connection to Buffalo upon the Hurley hiring.
In the first part of the season, Evans has been a strong addition to the team. At times he has been the key to Buffalo's success (see St. Bonaventure), while at others he has been less prominent, but Evans clearly belongs on the floor even as a true freshman and has made noticeable improvements to his game even since the first games against Texas A&M and Niagara.
While his shooting numbers - 30% from the field and 27% from three - leave something to be desired, Evans brings a game that UB hasn't seen since Rodney Pierce, as he's driving the hoop and getting to the lane upwards of three times a game. Add in his positive Assist to Turnover numbers, and a steal per game, and there's no doubt that Evans has brought a spark to Buffalo.
And what of Joshua Freelove? The fifth year transfer has exceeded expectations and provided a steady hand and a penchant for a timely three to Amherst. Stepping up a notch or three in conference strength, Freelove has matched his 12 ppg from last season. I don't have much to say about Freelove, and in this case that's a good thing. He's just been solid.
Javon McCrea - There's very little new that I can say about Javon, other than that I think he's actually being underrated by UB fans and press (but that's not as much of a surprise) so far this season. We all know what he can do, so I'm just going to drop in this blurb from Hustle Belt...
Player of the Year: Javon McCrea, Buffalo senior forward Say what you want about his team's performance, but McCrea is the best player in the MAC, and his play backs it up. Yes, his team isn't leading the MAC, but the level of talent around him isn't even close to the talent level on some other teams. You plug McCrea in on other MAC teams, like say EMU, and you instantly have a contender. He's ferocious, a dynamic scorer and can take over a game.
The biggest knock on McCrea in previous seasons has been that despite his stats, it didn't translate into wins. Well, if you watched the Bulls road game vs. Drexel on Dec. 29, that argument doesn't hold up. McCrea was spectacular, and had his best single-handily won Buffalo the game. He's currently second in the MAC in both scoring and rebounding with 17.7 and 9.6 a game respectively. Oh, he's also No. 3 in blocked shots and No. 5 in field goal percentage. I'm not even including advanced statistics. McCrea is going to terrorize the MAC in this second half. Don't expect him to slow down.
Frontcourt Depth - We pretty much knew what we had in McCrea and Will Regan coming into this season, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the play of the frontcourt depth, especially with Javon's occasional foul trouble, and Will's slow start to the year. Xavier Ford seems to have remade himself under the new coach, and is shooting 81% from the line, while Justin Moss has been adding 10 minutes per game. Moss' offensive numbers are less strong than Ford's, but neither of them are going to be McCrea or Regan down low. Their real value, however, has been on the defensive end, where their ability to fill in for 25 total minutes a game has helped the top string guys stay fresh or from exacerbating foul trouble.
If you need any further convincing on this point, consider this: Against Drexel, Javon racked up his second foul before the first media timeout and his third late in the first half, and finished the game with three fouls. We could write a whole post about the fury that McCrea unleashed on the Dragons coming out of the break, and his timely buckets throughout the second stanza, but the fact of the matter is that the potential MAC Player of the Year does not have that game, and UB does not win if Ford and Moss don't help UB hold Drexel to just 24 points themselves, and if Coach Hurley doesn't feel comfortable using Moss in an offense/defense rotation with Javon throughout the second half.
Inconsistency - The basketball team's 6-4 record is a little less cut and dry than football's 8-5. While football never strayed from the middle ground between "better teams" and "worse teams", basketball has some pleasant wins and stunning losses. The Niagara loss was bad, while against Canisius and Manhattan UB had control and frittered it away. On the other hand, the team has shown what it can do against St. Bonaventure and Drexel. As I said above, to some degree this is to be expected from a new coach, but I'd love to see the guys hit their stride here in conference play.
Attacking a Zone Defense - This is now the hallmark for the Bulls: over the last ten years, they just cannot beat a zone. At times, sharpshooters like Eric Moore and Zach Filzen have helped shoot over it, but at others the three point shooting dries up. This season, the team still seems to be unable to beat the zone. Whether because of youth or makeup, against a zone the Bulls rush their shots rather than look for a weakness either to drive or get it down low.
Three Point Shooting - This is so strong a follow up to the previous point that I considered lumping them together. To put it nicely, things aren't going too hot from distance so far this year. We knew that Will Regan can hit it from three, but we should also all be in agreement that that should be more theplay-action pass to open up the defense rather than the centerpoint of his game.
And if that's to be the case, someone else has to hit something. Right now Regan is shooting 47% from distance, a full 10% better than the next best Bull in Joshua Freelove. Freelove has hit several timely threes so far this season, including two big ones that ultimately went for naught against Manhattan, but even 37% from distance isn't really good enough for a team's #1 threat. No one else is above 30%, as Jarod Oldham, Jarryn Skeete, and Evans are all in the 25% range.
While this team attacks the rim and has strong depth in the frontcourt, opponents have been able to stop the offense by choking off the interior, and MAC teams who are even more familiar with Buffalo will look to do the same.
Guard Depth - Evans and Freelove have been solid to very good at times, and Skeete put up big numbers against Bonaventure, but in general the story with UB's backcourt has been the flipside of my earlier point on the big guys. Much like the numbers from distance, no one other than Freelove is shooting well, as Evans, Skeete and Oldham are all below 35% from the field.
Jarod Oldham has filled up the stat sheet as always, but Bulls fans (myself included) hoping to see a step forward from his pre-injury numbers last year have so far been disappointed, as the senior is averaging 7 and 3 in 28 minutes. Oldham is however, leading the team with a Gupilan-esque 5.4 assists per game. Maybe as the season goes on Oldham will take a step forward. He may also get minutes if the younger guys fatigue over the longer college season.
Deyshonee Much is only seeing a little over six minutes per game and will clearly benefit from an offseason of weight training.
Auraum Nuiriankh's Playing Time - Where has this guy gone? You may have been thinking as I talked about three point shooting and backcourt depth of the player who as a junior last year frequently started and played 30 minutes a night, filling up the stat sheet with a handful of hustle rebounds and assists a game. Nuiriankh was never great from three, but he could occasionally get into a rhythm.
Just as much as Ford has blossomed under Bobby Hurley, though, Nuiriankh has completely disappeared into the shadows of newcomers Evans and Freelove. His most prolific stat this season is fouls, as he's barely seeing the floor and only has a single point to his name from the 30 point win over Binghamton. Obviously things were going to change under a new coach, but it's a surprise to see someone who got so much time under Reggie totally banished to Raley-Rossville this season.
The Schedule - Half the MAC has played 13 games. Another 3 have played 12. Two have played 11, and UB had 11 scheduled. In the future, I'd like to see more games. Please and thank you.
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