Last night was ugly but all is not lost. Here are my primary takeaways from last nights game.
First and foremost, I feel that it’s important that we contextualize the realistic range of outcomes for this team. I debated writing a preseason post about the predictive power of preseason analytical rankings for a team with such a low percentage of returning minutes. After doing some preliminary research the answer was essentially that it’s all over the board, and without a clear correlation I decided against writing anything. Kenpom’s preseason ranking of 93 felt more like a reasonable rating for where UB could be by season’s end rather than a starting point.
While there is a massive amount of talent on this team in the form of known quantities (Davonta Jordan, Jayvon Graves, Antwain Johnson), young guys looking to make a jump (Jeenathan Williams, Ronaldo Segu), and high major transfers (Josh Mballa, Laquill Hardnett, David Nickelberry, Gabe Grant), being a clear top 100 team takes more than just talent. The guys in the high major transfer group didn’t end up in Buffalo because they were already key cogs on their respective top 100 teams, and it’s unfair to them to expect that from them in game one in a Buffalo uniform. Combined those four have played 545 minutes at the D1 level, less than 14 full games between the four. This team is only going to improve, individually as they gain experience, and as a team as they play together. As it’s always been (other than last year) it’s about how the team looks in MAC play, and heading into Cleveland, and the talent is still there for Buffalo to be favorites.
On to the actual game, one of the things that Dartmouth did best in the first half to build their lead was kill the tempo. This made things incredibly hard for an inexperienced team with a new coach that is predicated on scoring in transition. The half-court offense was lacking in game one, and shots were not falling for the majority of the night. One of the keys to the second half push was picking up full court on defense, speeding up the Big Green, and forcing turnovers. The half-court offense will clearly need to improve, but the defense will need to continue to create easy offense was the offense is sputtering, especially when facing athletically inferior teams such as Dartmouth.
On rewatch the half-court offense for the most part looked better than what I thought watching live, generally creating good looks for UB players. 6 of the 7 UB players that have played D1 ball before had true shooting percentages last night below what they had in their most recent D1 season. That means the Bulls are due for some positive regression in that regard, sometimes shots just don’t fall.
One area of concern was some of the shot selection. There were possessions where UB players forced drives into a crowd of Dartmouth defenders that weren’t necessary. Additionally I noticed an increase in step-back jumpshots that have not, to my recollection, been a part of the UB offense in the past. On rewatch I counted eight step-back jumpers that resulted in a total of five points, good for 0.625 points per possession. For reference, last year’s offense (as a whole) averaged 1.152 points per possession. The step-back jumpers came with an average of 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Ideally these would only come in end of shot clock situations, and the ball would be worked around in search of better shots earlier in the shot clock.
The Front Court
Brock Bertram missed the game on Friday due to an unknown foot injury, and the Bulls missed him on the court. Josh Mballa played fairly well, nearly recording a double double with 10 points and 9 rebounds, however his inexperience was shown on the defensive end. Mballa has the athleticism to make up for precarious positioning at times with his shot blocking ability, but positioning and rotations on the back end were a regular issue for Josh Mballa and Laquill Hardnett. In the front court’s defense, it appears that it was Jim Whitesell’s decision to guard Dartmouth big man Chris Knight out to the 3-point line, which made recovering on rotations more difficult. Knight was only 8-30 from three coming into this year, prior to the 3 point line being moved back.
While Laquill Hardnett stands at 6’8”, his slender frame allowed him to be pushed around inside against stronger players. Hardnett would ideally slot in at the 4, as a skilled tall wing similar to the role that Jeremy Harris has played in the past, but the injury to Bertram forced Hardnett to play the 5 in relief of Mballa.
The Bulls allowed a physically unimposing Dartmouth team to shoot 53.5% from two. Last season allowing 53.5% shooting from the interior would have ranked outside the top 300 (of 353) in D1. Fortunately for the Bulls, positioning can be learned, but Mballa and Hardnett’s athleticism can’t be taught, meaning that the ceiling is high for the Bulls to continue to improve as the team continues to gel. Hopefully Bertram’s injury is not serious as his experience in the UB system should shore up some of the positioning issues, provide another big body to match-up with more physical teams, and allow Hardnett to slide down to a more natural fit at the 4.
David Nickelberry’s DNP last night was surprising, as I figured coming into the season that he would be the most ready of this year’s recruiting class to contribute right off the bat. I watched several of his JUCO games, and he has legitimate playmaking ability with a 6’7” frame. Nickelberry’s addition to the lineup would be a two-fold boost to the Bulls. For one, his size and ability to play make would slot in well at the 3, allowing Jim Whitesell to use more two guard lineups, keeping the guards fresh and allowing them to more often pick up the full court pressure that keyed the second half push last night. Additionally, Nickelberry’s size/playmaking combination presents a mismatch that could potentially be exploited to provide a shot in the arm for what was at times, a stagnant half-court offense.
Nickelberry was the last player to make his way onto campus this summer after wrapping things up at his JUCO, and then was slowed in the preseason by a bum ankle, so it will be interesting to see if he is able to carve out a role for himself as the season progresses.
Things That Didn’t Deserve Their Own Section
- Nate Oats first two D1 games as head coach were losses to Saint Joseph’s and Old Dominion by a combined 41 points, give Jim Whitesell time.
- Games this early in the season can look a lot different by the end of the season. Dartmouth currently projects as what would be a lower-mid level team in the MAC, but it remains to be seen if they could outperform that.
- UB’s next D1 opponent, Harvard, lost a game to Dartmouth by 18 last season.