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Buffalo Bulls Women's Basketball Nonconference Recap: 7-4 start bodes well for MAC play

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UB Athletics

With Monday night's win over Canisius, the UB Women's Basketball team wrapped up the nonconference half of their schedule and will head into MAC play against Ohio on Saturday at 7-4. On one hand, it's a second straight strong start to the Bulls, who have always improved in the second half of the season under Coach Jack, but on the other it could have been a notch better and leaves us with some questions heading into 2015.

Read on for a look at the season so far.

Team Stats

Record: 7-4

Best win: Comeback from 13-0 deficit to 51-44 over St. Bonaventure (RPI 96, Massey 83)

Worst loss: Turnover-riddled 73-79 loss at LIU-Brooklyn (RPI 283, Massey 294)

Relative to expectations: Probably a little below expectations, honestly, despite the start being one of the best in the MAC era. Without a doubt UB should have beaten LIU-Brooklyn - and even with 30+ turnovers, they almost did. Siena is a decent team, but the Bulls had them beat in the game itself, matchup notwithstanding, before throwing it away. No shame in losing to Duke. The rankings are mixed on Tulsa: they're either a relative peer (Massey), or very bad (RPI). Either way, it doesn't seem like Buffalo should have been as noncompetitive in that one as they were.

Prior to the season I would have predicted the Duke loss, coinflips against Tulsa and Bonaventure, and one letdown game between Siena and LIU-Brooklyn. 8-3 would be great, and 7-4 is pretty good, but the way it's played out leaves me wanting a bit more.

Relative to years past: As I said above, 7-4 is still good for one of the best starts in the MAC era. It's the second straight 7-4 start, but prior to last year that mark was last matched in 2002-03, and the Bulls that year went 8-3 in nonconference and 7-4 in their first eleven. They would lose their twelfth game before finishing 9-7 in the MAC.

Buffalo also started 7-4 in 1998-99, and was excellent in 1999-00 and 2000-01, starting 12-4 and 11-4, respectively.

Most positive stat: For the most part, this year's team stacks up pretty similar to last year's. One notable improvement is in three-point defense. Already a strength, the Bulls are holding opponents to just 26.6% shooting from distance - a full 6% lower than last year

Most negative stat: UB's 20.4 turnovers per game is up by nearly 20% over last year's mark. 34 turnovers against LIU-Brooklyn accounts for about 40% of that increase, but that game counts as much as the others, anyway.

Key offensive stat: We expected UB to be strong on the boards, and while they've actually been outrebounded on the season, they have improved over last year on the offensive glass, pulling down 15 offensive boards per game - an increase of 10% over last year.

Key defensive stat: Buffalo's steals are way up, while fouls are holding steady. It still feels like far too many fouls most nights, but increased defensive pressure led directly to wins against Cornell and St. Bonaventure and has helped the Bulls flip momentum in other contests, as well.

Biggest Surprise: Unfortunately, the loss to LIU-Brooklyn. There's no way around it: it was a bad, bad loss. It's a testament to how much better Buffalo is than the Blackbirds that the game was never really out of hand. There are few teams out there that wouldn't run away from UB if gifted 34 turnovers, but LIU-Brooklyn is one of them, and the Bulls still couldn't string together eight good minutes for the ugly win.

Random Tidbit: As you might expect given the three-point defense I highlighted earlier, UB is at its best when defensively it keeps the ball on the perimeter and gains control quickly when other teams work down low: the team averages 5.8 blocks and 36.5 rebounds in losses, but just 3.6 and 47.0 in wins.

Individual Stats

Leading Scorer: Sophomore Alexus Malone, at 12.5 ppg, though Mackenzie Loesing (12.3) and Kristen Sharkey (12.2) give UB a truly balanced threat.

Leading Rebounder: Malone again, at 9.4 rpg. Christa Baccas and Sharkey combine for 14.5 further boards each night, as well.

Three Key Storylines: 1. Mackenzie Loesing's health. After lamenting for a handful of games that Loesing seemed off, starting with a 3-20 shooting night against Niagara, I learned that the talented guard is dealing with a "semi-serious ankle injury," fallout from her past surgery on the foot. Niagara was relatively early in the season, and UB has maintained their level of play, but it would be nice to get a healthy Loesing back.

2. The return of Rachael Gregory. Gregory missed the second half of her freshman year and all of last season due to a knee injury, finally returning this fall. Gregory certainly looks all the way back, and is a matchup nightmare; too big for guards and too fast for forwards. She's started nine of 11 games and is averaging 8.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 25 mnutes a night.

3. Rotating guard production. With Loesing functioning below 2013-14 levels, UB's strong depth has been tested earlier than in past seasons. Fortunately, much of the lineup got productive minutes in times of foul trouble last year. Camera Miley in particular has flashed improvement this season, and Karin Moss and Joanna Smith are both playing regularly. Together the three are averaging 13 points, 7 boards, and over 3 steals a game in 48 minutes a game.

Surprising Guard: Has to be Miley. After appearing in only 11 games last year, she's seen action in all but one in 2014-15, playing over 20 minutes a night. She's more than doubled her points and rebounds with the increased minutes, and looks the most comfortable of any Bull running the point.

Surprising Forward: Can I go with Alexus Malone? We knew she was good after over 7 points and 5 boards last year, but the Truth has taken a big step forward, even more important in light of Loesing's injury. Leading the team in both points and rebounds, she's also shown that her range as a freshman was no fluke, and is second on the team in three pointers.

Underrated: UB's other forwards: Christa Baccas and Kristen Sharkey. Baccas is making a serious run at a school record held by an all-time great. Right now she sits at 205 career blocks. If she maintains her current pace, she'd finish with 250, just ten shy of the school-record 260 of Kourtney Brown, who holds many, many program records. Right now Christa is averaging 2.4 blocks/game, and missed four contests to a foot injury. Keep that in mind if her pace holds and she finishes around 10 behind Brown.

Sharkey is in this section not because she's not appreciated, but because she's so steady. For the second consecutive season she leads the team in minutes, and while her points totals are a bit streaky game-to-game, she's entirely capable of taking over, as she did recently against Canisius, is nearly always good for a half-dozen rebounds, and often chips in a bunch of secondary stats, too.

In the MAC Rankings:

As a team, UB is in the middle-to-bottom of most stats. I haven't for this piece looked into other team's strength of schedule, but it does add credence to the feeling that 7-4 is a bit of an underperformance for the preseason MAC East favorite.

The Bulls are, however, percentage points from leading the conference in three-point defense and lead the conference in blocks and steals by wide margins. They are dead last, surprisingly, in defensive rebounding, both by percentage and total offensive rebounds surrendered.

Individually, no Bulls are top-ten in the conference in scoring, but Malone is tied for the MAC lead in rebounds, while Sharkey is fourth in free throw percentage and second in steals. Malone and Loesing are also tied for sixth in steals.

In blocks, Baccas apparently does not qualify yet, but would be well above the pack and in contention with Kent's CiCi Shannon for the top spot. Sharkey and Malone are tied for fifth, and tied again for fourth in offensive rebounds.

***
Overall, it's not a particularly strong resume against not a particularly strong schedule, especially given the preseason expectations for this upperclass team. But in Coach Jack's first year the Bulls were 2-11 in nonconference, before going 8-8 in the MAC and even 2-1 in the tournament. Last year, UB was a similar 7-4 before MAC play and went 10-8 in conference.

The MAC opener Saturday will go a long way to fan hopes for this season: Ohio looks like a fairly strong team in the MAC East, but has thrived on their three-point shooting - UB's defensive strength. On their way to 10-8 last year, the Bulls did start 0-3 when they faced three of the conference's top four teams to start MAC play, but were able to bounce back. It would be nice for a number of reasons to avoid a similar situation this year.

Go Bulls!