The UB Bulls will be back in the NCAA Tournament
Bulls have talent to make it back to Cleveland and the Big Dance
It’s rather easy to be down on the Bulls this year.
Just look at some of these percentages. The Bulls lost 64.5 percent of their scoring last season, 58.1 percent of their rebounding and 48.2 percent of their assists last year with the losses of Justin Moss, Shannon Evans, Xavier Ford and Will Regan.
But none of those statistics matters to me. The only stat that I care about is printed in the rafters of Alumni Arena, which reads 2015 Mid-American Conference Champions.
I think the Bulls will not only overcome the losses of their key players, but Buffalo will win the Mid-American Conference East Division, the MAC Tournament and represent the MAC in the NCAA Tournament once again.
But I understand the other side of my argument. Moss was one of the best players in the MAC last year and gave the Bulls someone who could “get them a bucket.” As for Evans, he had his warts, but he finished sixth in the conference in scoring and seemed to figure out how to properly balance scoring and setting up his teammates. Regan was a big man who can shoot and be a factor on the offensive glass.
And quiet as kept, Ford was the team’s most important player last year. He was the lynchpin to a defensive system that lacked an ideal rim protector. Ford’s ability to step out and defend on the perimeter and in the post allowed Moss to stick to post players who weren’t threats offensively.
I feel like I say this with a hint of bias, but I believe in Nate Oats as the team’s head coach. The accolades and resume speaks for itself, but just talking with him, he sounds like a basketball academic. Because of the losses on the roster, the Bulls will be in a bit of an adjustment period, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Oats had everything running smoothly by January.
And the returning players will have to step up their play. Seniors Raheem Johnson, Jarryn Skeete, Rodell Wigginton and sophomore Lamonte Bearden provide value in areas where the Bulls need on both sides of the ball. Skeete and Johnson are both players who play solid defense and take - and make - smart shots at an above average rate.
That’s an underrated trait in basketball. The best shots in basketball are threes and shots at the rim. Last season, Johnson hit 60 percent of his shots at the rim, while Skeete knocked down 38 percent of his threes. Both players aren’t number one options offensively, but are in positions to take shots they’re good at.
Wigginton will be expected to contribute more offensively, but I feel most of his value will come from the defensive end. If he can improve and become an average three-point shooter, say about 33 percent or so, he could be the team’s second best player.
As for Bearden, the Bulls’ success will ride mostly on his shoulders, and I think he’s going to take a leap with a larger offensive role. Last season, most of Bearden’s value was as a secondary ball-handler and perimeter defender. He was so good in both of those areas, it hid the fact he shot 38 percent overall, 21 percent from three and turned the ball over 21 percent of the time.
This year, I think Bearden becomes one of the five best players in the conference. His defensive value will go up as he becomes the main defender for point guards and without an offensive player bogging down possessions, I think his offensive game will flourish in head coach Nate Oats’ up-tempo offense.
And finally, I think the new incoming players will provide the Bulls with just enough to fill in the margins.
Forwards David Kadiri and Nick Perkins will provide value at the power forward position, giving Oats two big men who can bang in the post, set screens for the guards and finish at the rim. Freshman guard C.J. Massinburg plays with a swagger that is often needed on good teams.
But the two guys that intrigue me the most are Ikenna Smart and Willie Conner. Smart because of his potential defensive value. If Smart can become a rim protector, that’s a win for the Bulls. Having someone who can not only defend the rim, but be an overall defensive presence is important because it creates hesitation from the opponent. Instead of normally attacking the basket, you worry about getting your shot blocked.
As for Conner, the most important thing for him is if he can shoot. If Conner can shoot and play decent defense, you now have two six-foot-six wings with him as well as Wigginton and you can run, at times, a four-guard lineup that can switch on defense and hit threes offensively.
It’s not going to be an easy road for the Bulls. Old Dominion and St. Joseph’s are pretty talented teams until later in non-conference play when it takes on teams like VCU and Iowa State that still have leftover talent from the days of Shaka Smart and Fred Hoiberg. And of course, Duke, a nationwide powerhouse, is coming off an NCAA Championship.
But when everything becomes familiar and the freshmen and newcomers get acclimated, I think the Bulls could be a wrecking ball on offensively and defensively. I could envision this team running eight or nine deep with all of the ingredients of a good team.
There’s a part of me that feels like I’m jumping the gun with this prediction. I feel a year ahead. However, this team has the talent and coaching staff to repeat last season’s feats and despite more questions than answers at this moment in time, the talent is there and I’m betting on it.