After WNIT loss, Bulls poised to take next step with roster, coach combination
The next step
You never exactly know when a team or player is ready to take the leap.
Take this year’s men basketball team. The Bulls were 6-6 at one point in Mid-American Conference play, and it appeared like they were going to end up in the middle of the pack heading into the conference tournament.
You know the rest.
This year, the women’s team went through a similar situation, falling to 8-7 in conference play before winning their last three regular season games and claiming a top-4 seed in the conference tournament before falling to Ohio in the semifinals.
The women didn’t take the leap like the men, but based on the success from this season, I think next season is a perfect season for when they can take that leap.
I think the essentials are there to make that a reality. This team went 19-13 this season and 11-7 in the conference. Their defense took a step forward this year and led the conference in steals. They have a second gear on the defensive end – forcing turnovers and creating points off of them.
Offensively, I think they have some more work to do, but the tools are there for success. Buffalo is aggressive on offense and is always willing to make the additional pass for the easier basket. The shooting as a whole (free-throw shooting and 3-point shooting) is a concern, but again, the Bulls were good enough to win 19 games while being at the bottom of both categories.
The two biggest negatives, however, is that the Bulls are losing two very important frontcourt players: Kristen Sharkey and Christa Baccas.
In Sharkey, the Bulls are losing a do-it-all offensive player. Sharkey was a good scorer for the Bulls, but she was also a good passer in the high-post. While her size was a detriment on the defensive end, her perimeter skills forced larger players to defend her, allowing her to pull larger opponents outside the paint, creating a mismatch.
Baccas might be the bigger loss for this team. As the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Baccas allowed the Bulls to play small, thanks to ability to protect the rim. With smaller guards on the perimeter, Baccas served as an eraser for perimeter mistakes. The team will miss her 2.3 blocks per game – first in the MAC Conference –next season.
Sharkey and Baccas departure also mirrors the men’s team losing Javon McCrea and Josh Freelove last season.
In order to replicate that production, the Bulls will look toward sophomore guard Alexus Malone to take a step forward into the Sharkey spot. She’s a mismatch, thanks to her ability to be a presence in the interior, while still being a threat from the outside with her jump shot. Malone’s play will be vital to the team’s success next season.
As for the other forward spot, we’re looking at uncertainty.
Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack will have plenty of size to choose from. Sophomore Cassie Oursler (6-foot-3), freshman Mariah Suchan (6-foot-1) and freshman Courtney Wilkins (6-foot-1) will battle for the other forward spot to accompany Malone. It wouldn’t shock me if all three got a chance to prove their value early in the regular season before Legette-Jack adjusts her rotation accordingly before conference play.
From the frontcourt to the backcourt, the Bulls are loaded at both guard spots, creating a rotation that could be the best in the conference. Freshman Stephanie Reid and sophomore Camera Miley will solidify the point guard position. In the second half of this season, Reid’s play was impressive, both as a passer and taking care of the ball.
At the off-guard position, the Bulls will have junior guard Mackenzie Loesing and sophomore Joanna Smith. Smith is a good defender and turned it on offensively at the end of the season, drawing the praise of the coaching staff for her play.
As for Loesing, I’m expecting a great senior season. After the team was eliminated by Ohio in the MAC quarterfinals, Legette-Jack revealed that Loesing was playing through the majority of the season with torn ligaments in her ankle. With time to heal, Loesing will return next season as the team’s best outside shooter – a position that Buffalo desperately needed this season.
And in Legette-Jack, Bulls have the head coach to make it all work. I truly believe that Legette-Jack will be the head coach of the first Bulls team to make the NCAA Tournament. She’s a great leader and in just quick conversations in the past, I think she has the system, the strategy and the perfect brand of leadership to get this team to the ‘Big Dance.’
It won’t be easy, the Bulls were fourth in the MAC this season and there were times where they struggled on the offensive end. But the roster is bringing back a handful of experienced guards, the size is on the roster to cover for the losses of Sharkey and Baccas and they have a really good head coach in place.
This is the time for this team to succeed. Buffalo was in the semifinals last season and it had a chance to defeat No. 1 Ohio. This team dealt with point guard uncertainty, a player – Rachel Gregory – quitting the team and a handful of inexperienced players getting the bulk of the playing time and were still ranked in the top four in the conference.
If the Bulls can solve their forward rotation and get just a bit better production from outside shooting, the Bulls should be able to not only replicate their 2014-15 run, but perform better in the regular season.
The program’s first ever NCAA Tournament bid is imminent.
Quentin Haynes is the sports desk editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org