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Time to get excited about UB Men’s Basketball

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NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Buffalo vs Miami Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve spent time thinking about how to approach the season preview for the 2021-22 UB Bulls Men’s Basketball team. Given the continuity within the program, it seems only appropriate to rejoin the gang where we left them. The UB Community ventured through last season on a very unusual route. There were the normal ups and downs of a team and a season in the MAC, overlaid on the ongoing pandemic, which prevented fans from watching in person and resulting in cancellations of games and many unique circumstances.

The Bulls season, officially, ended in the first round of the NIT on Friday, March 19th. To many, the season had really ended the previous Saturday with a loss to Ohio in the MAC Tournament. As in most seasons since the most recent stretch of success started under former coach Bobby Hurley and reached new heights under Nate Oats, the expectation has been to win in Cleveland. Get to the Big Dance. Slay some giants. Many years they’ve achieved those goals. Last year they did not.

Basketball at the Mid Major level, though, isn’t about one and dones. Or reloading. Nobody wins every year. It’s about development. It’s about growth. It’s about a group on a journey. Even in the day and age of transfers and JUCOs, often the most successful teams are ones that start together at the bottom of the mountain and climb together. The core players and the staff are on that climb. Today, they are at base camp, and this season is the final ascent. Expectations are high, as they should be. For those involved in the climb, this makes it all the better when the summit is reached. Can the Bulls reach their summit this year? Let’s look into it.

Coaching

Jim Whitesell begins his third season at the helm of the Bulls. Fair or not, he will be measured against what his predecessor was able to accomplish. Year 3 was the breakthrough for Nate Oats to get the Bulls to the next level. That year and the next they won the conference and a game in the Tournament. The time is now for Whitesell to do the same. He has to find a way to get this group to the next level. Continuity among his staff should mean there are many fewer growing pains this season concerning the lineup and rotation. He knows his players and his staff and they know him. Everyone should know what to expect. And that should be to compete with anyone they end up on a court with at any time.

Frontcourt

UB’s roster is deep, maybe nowhere more so than in the frontcourt, where they return All-MAC First Team forward Josh Mballa, as well as Brock Bertram, LaQuill Hardnett, David Skogman, and Travon Fagan. Add in freshmen Kuluel Mading and Zaakir Williamson and UB should not be left wanting for size or minutes up front.

Mballa is the headliner and the Putnam Academy graduate and Texas Tech transfer was a dominant force down the stretch last year and was voted a First Team Preseason All-MAC player by the conference’s coaches entering this season. His combination of strength, athletic ability and aggressiveness make him a matchup nightmare. He is a relentless rebounder who has continually improved his skill level, notably leading many breaks last year. He tried to add 3 pt shooting ability to his resume as well with mixed results. If he were able to consistently knock that shot down, it would be the final piece in the development of a likely future pro. Even if not, he will be part of the Bulls core players. UB’s optimum lineup may also include Mballa as the only ‘big’ on the floor. If so, can he hold up against the bigger lineups in games against the Bulls better opponents?

Brock Bertram has, it seems, been here forever. Given a redshirt season, injuries and the COVID waiver he is back for his sixth season with the program. He has improved each year and is capable of providing minutes at ‘the 5’ with quality defense and rebounding. He is a great asset to the younger players, showing them the way and always competing. Perhaps no other play more embodies the mid-major journey like Bertram. Can he avoid the nagging injuries that have always prevented him from playing through a full season?

LaQuill Hardnett originally enrolled at Cincinnati out of high school, but transferred to Buffalo after one season. After acclimating two seasons ago, he became a key bench contributor last year and returns in that role. His game is noted by his shot selection and high level of efficiency. One of the more highly recruited players on the roster, does he have another level to his well rounded game?

Travon Fagan has a similar size and athletic profile to Hardnett, but has been through his share of injury challenges. Once healthy, he proved a reliable spark off the bench, able to score in bursts with his shooting ability at times. He is another long-tenured Bull in his 4th year in the program in addition to a year in the JUCO ranks. Can he put it all together and carve out a permanent, significant spot in the rotation this year?

David Skogman is one of the other more highly recruited players from the last handful of years, although some teams were scared off a bit late when a heart condition surfaced late in his HS career. After redshirting two years ago, Skogman’s role and playing time were inconsistent last year, but more than once he showed that his future is bright. With the size of a ‘big’ and the shooting ability more reminiscent of a wing, you can see a difference maker if it all comes together. Will that happen this year?

Kuluel Mading is a tall, lanky freshman who signed somewhat late in the cycle after interest in him spiked. With intriguing athletic upside, will he be able to crack the rotation as a freshman?

Zaakir Williamson is the other freshman forward. As the first commitment of this year’s recruiting class, many are probably familiar with the name. With a shorter, stockier frame somewhat reminiscent of a young Nick Perkins, he is a bit of a different player than Mading. Like Mading, however, is his time as a regular contributor a bit further down the road?

Backcourt

Maybe only slightly less deep than the front court, the guard and wings for the Bulls are a deep, talented group with good size. With a nice mix of returning talent and fresh blood, perhaps the only question is who will emerge as a viable second ball handler to spell Ronaldo Segu.

Jeenathan Williams, the other Preseason All-Conference pick for the Bulls, enters his true Senior season. Originally from Rochester, Williams played a small, but regular, role on the 2018-19 team as a freshman. Stepping into a larger role the following season after the graduation of most of the core of that all time program team, the improvement was obvious. Further refinement occurred last year and he was one of the team’s most indispensable players. Equally good inside or out the ‘wing’ is included here in the backcourt, but some may consider him a forward. The lefty’s ability to finish around the rim, both in transition and slashing in the halfcourt are his calling card. He has improved greatly both handling and shooting the ball and is an early favorite for MAC player of the year. If the Bulls reach the heights they are shooting for this year, Williams will be among the trio leading the way. Can he take them where they want to go?

Ronaldo Segu is the final member of the key ‘trio’, along with Williams and Mballa, and came in with Jeenathan and, likewise, had a steady role as a freshman. Having gained that invaluable experience, he serves as one of the strongest links to the previous Bulls greatness. Stepping into the full time PG role last year, his improvement was obvious, both in facilitating for others and as the primary long distance shooting threat. Electric quick, he is a quality ball pressure presence defensively. All great teams need a high level and consistent lead guard. Can ‘Rondo’ rise to that level?

Maceo Jack is a George Washington transfer and son of Women’s coach Felisha Legette-Jack, who looks to step into the vacancy created by the graduation of program mainstay Jayvon Graves. Graves foray into the G League is indicative of the size of the void needing to be occupied. Jack should be up to the task. A bit taller than Graves, but maybe a better pure shooter, Jack had great success in the A-10, especially in shooting from distance. Can he be a consistent threat to knock down outside shots when he gets open looks?

Another guard that the coaches are looking to for outside shooting, Keishawn Brewton should be more settled in his second year in the program after transferring in from Coastal Carolina. Streaky last year, can he stabilize this season?

A combo guard previously with Fordham, Ty Perry joins the group with an eye on contributing with a well rounded floor game. Previous experience with an A-10 program makes it likely the transition will be a smooth one. Can he provide Segu time off the floor or off the ball without the team suffering?

The other guard likely to compete for minutes at the point, Curtis Jones joins UB from a high end JUCO program, while maintaining Freshman eligibility. Originally from Minnesota, the jump from JUCO to the MAC shouldn’t prove too difficult for the tall, do it all prospect. Is he the backup PG?

The second roster player originally from Rochester, by way of a year in prep school in Memphis, Kidtrell Blocker is considered a high end athlete that may need some time for his skill set and floor game to catch up. Will there be minutes for him this year?

Schedule

The schedule this year seems a bit uneven; with a few high end games including Michigan mixed with a couple of games against lower division teams. Also included is a game against Canisius in the KeyBank Center downtown and tournament games in the Cancun Challenge. The now-regular annual game with local rival St. Bonaventure is in Allegany this year and they are ranked nationally in the preseason poll. Add in road tilts with North Texas and Western Kentucky and the schedule has its challenges. Can the team meet that challenge? Even if so, will the weaker opponents and middling strength of the league slate limit their at-large possibilities?

Conference

Many of the typical competitors for MAC supremacy return to contention according to the preseason coaches poll, including Ohio, Toledo and Akron. Add in Kent St, Bowling Green and Miami and the top of the standings look to have a similar feel. With new coaches, however, at a few places, the flavor of the conference may end up a bit different. Further, the possibility of adding Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee make the future of the conference seem brighter. Can the MAC become a multi-bid league with improvements in the next couple of years? Can it be strong enough to support a high enough strength of schedule for UB to get an at-large bid if the season goes well, but falls short of ultimate success in Cleveland?

Final Thoughts

The things we know of this team, as well as many of the questions to be answered will have us all following along intently to the continued journey all season. One thing for sure, many students and fans will be excited about the opportunity to get back in the arenas to rejoin the quest. Will we be cheering the Bulls as they summit the ladders to cut down the nets in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in March?

From where I sit, yes, fans should expect a conference championship. The talent, experience, depth, toughness and coaching are in place to expect no less this year. And make no mistake, the stakes are high. Falling short of that goal may cause AD Mark Alnutt to question if Jim Whitesell is the man to lead the program going forward.

My prediction: a return to similar heights of the Oats years. Conference regular season and tournament championships will be secured. As will a win in the Big Dance. Can this be the team to break through to the second weekend?, a height never before reached by the program? Stay tuned.