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Return of the Blue Collar Bulls?

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Defense Keys 5-1 Stretch

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 28 Buffalo at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When I last wrote about the state of the men’s basketball team following a 20 point loss at Ball State, I highlighted that my biggest concern with this year’s iteration of the Buffalo Bulls was on the defensive side of the ball. Since then Jim Whitesell and the gang have played significantly better and the Bulls were two Kent State banked-in-threes away from being on a six game winning streak. While the offense has held steady during this stretch, the defensive effort has improved and been the difference between starting 0-2 and then winning 5 of the next 6.

As Bulls fans know, one way an opposing offense can kill you is on the offensive glass. Following the Ball State game, the Bulls were ranked 280th nationally in opponent offensive rebounding rate. Since that game, the Bulls have allowed opponents to grab just 24.8% of available offensive rebounds which would rank 51st in the nation on the season. This reduction in opponent second chances has been one of the major keys in the defensive improvement over the last six games. I’d expect to see this trend continue throughout the season, the return of Brock Bertram has been key. Bertram is an efficient rebounder in his own right, but his addition to the lineup has also freed Jim Whitesell up to play more two big lineups, as well as keeping the other big men fresh.

The other major improvement the last six games has been tougher interior defense. After allowing opponents to shoot 50.6% from two over the first 15 games, the Bulls have allowed opponents to shoot just 46.4% from two over the last six games. Part of that improvement is that UB has blocked 12.1% of all opponent two point attempts in the last six games, up from 9.6% in the first 15 games. A large part of this improvement again has been Brock Bertram. Bertram has a block rate of 6.7%. While he hasn’t played enough minutes to qualify, that number would rank him 83rd in the nation to date. Bertram’s return has also freed Josh Mballa up to play more aggressively without fear of foul trouble. Mballa has more than doubled his season block rate over the last six games, averaging 2.61 blocks per 40 minutes.

While the point of this post was to highlight the defensive improvement, I’d be remiss not to point out the improvement of Antwain Johnson offensively, which has been another key to this run. After posting a true shooting percentage of 42.85% the first 15 games, Johnson has bounced back and posted a TS% of 64.24% over the last six games. With a handful of players battling the flu over the last few weeks, the offense has yet to click on all cylinders, but with Johnson getting hot and Gabe Grant getting more confident, the ceiling for this team has not yet been reached.