UB’s ‘fab five’ juniors look to lead new-look Bulls back into MAC contention
UB's five junior men's basketball players, Corey Raley-Ross (5), Auraum Nuiriankh (22), Javon McCrea (12), Cameron Downing (33) and Jarod Oldham (3), left to right, look to make their mark on the rest of the MAC. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
They're back. It's time. And, ready or not, here come the five.
Eight months have passed since the men's basketball team's methodical run through the Mid-American Conference came to a dramatic halt in the semifinals. Two and a half years have passed since five highly recruited freshmen arrived on campus and became a close-knit clique.
Now it's their turn.
After learning under former stars like Byron Mulkey, Zach Filzen and Mitchell Watt for two years, UB's five juniors will all be major contributors this year. Three have already faced the spotlight; two will finally get their shot.
Though Buffalo lost four of its top five scorers from last season's 20-11 team that won eight straight in conference play, the five believe they can make another run at the MAC title this season.
"With the fab five let loose, there won't be that big of a drop off, if any," said junior forward Javon McCrea, a first-team all-MAC selection last year. "I want to compare our team with the rest of the nation. It's bigger than just the MAC this year."
The season will likely hinge on McCrea's performance. Though the one-time MAC Freshman of the Year averaged 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season, he often deferred to Watt - who won MAC Player of the Year.
"Picture yourself running a race with a guy: you've been running stride for stride, maybe a little ahead, and all of a sudden he is [far ahead] and you're exhausted," said head coach Reggie Witherspoon. "You go: 'Hey, man, he must be faster than me.' You start mentally deferring. I think that happened a little bit. It's hard to balance it in the mind of an underclassman who is a good teammate. Before you know it, you're watching."
Watt is playing professional ball in Israel now, though, and McCrea - arguably the biggest recruit to ever come to UB - will need to carry the team.
"We need [McCrea] to be more assertive," said Witherspoon of McCrea, who finished third on the team in assists last year. "Javon is a great teammate, and we want him to still be a great teammate. He loves to share. We want him to keep sharing. What we don't want him to do is to defer. Really, guys are going to be deferring to him. He needs to have a mindset of being that guy every night. He has moments [when] he's that way, and he did last year - he had moments."
Senior guard Tony Watson, the team's unquestioned leader, said McCrea "knows he is the man" this year. But one player can't do it all, and McCrea will need help from his four companions.
Junior point guard Jarod Oldham, the squad's floor general, will dictate the team's tempo. The junior led the MAC in assists (183) last season.
At the two-guard spot, junior Corey Raley-Ross - a raw, freakishly athletic wing who did not see the court often last year - will start, but Watson (the sixth man) will likely play as many minutes as anyone on the team. Watson is the unit's best long-range shooter, and he'll fill the role Witherspoon has employed in recent years - bringing a senior, one of the team's best players, off the bench. Last year, seniors Titus Robinson and Dave Barnett were huge sparks off the bench.
"I don't even put any energy into trying to start the five best players," Witherspoon said. "I just think it doesn't work in our conference for us."
Junior Auraum Nuiriankh, a lock-down defender, started but only averaged 13.1 minutes per game last year. He'll occupy the small forward spot this season. Witherspoon said Nuiriankh's offense has vastly improved and he'll be one of the team's main offensive weapons.
Sophomore Will Regan, who transferred from Virginia and sat out last year, will likely start at power forward, but bulky junior Cameron Downing will get a lot of time as well.
Watson and Downing will be the main contributors off the bench, but sophomore forwards Xavier Ford and Raphell Thomas-Edwards will scrap for playing time, as will freshman point guard Jarryn Skeete - who is aiming to be Oldham's back up.
"The biggest thing with all those guys is: they're talented, but they're not seasoned," Witherspoon said. "The last thing you want is the feeling as coach when there's something going on and you look down at the bench and the guys on the bench are kind of [hiding their heads], don't want to look at you. Sometimes you need guys to come off the bench and start a fire, and other times you need guys to put a fire out. The last thing you want is you call a guy to put a fire out and he shows up with a garden hose or fire hose with gasoline in it. You need somebody who's going to come in and help."
Skeete said he and Oldham are working on their outside shooting so the Bulls can attract attention to the perimeter and give McCrea room to work in the post - because the team "will follow behind [McCrea] ... and no one should be able to stop us that way," according to Skeete.
Buffalo was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East this preseason by the MAC News Media Panel. The Bulls will face a murderous early-season schedule, including games against Florida State and Temple, and the squad has seven flights - more than ever before - on its docket.
"You start going game by game, trying to get the schedule done, and then afterwards you go: can we get a break here?" Witherspoon said. "It is a lot to throw at a team that lost four of its top scorers.
"I hope this experience helps us grow because we are going to some hostile places against some good teams. Hopefully it will help us speed that development a little bit because it is a challenging road. It's not a foregone conclusion that it will help you. You could go in there and it could disrupt the confidence of some of these guys, too, who haven't really been in that stressful of an environment."
The year of the five tips off in Alumni Arena at noon on Saturday against Princeton.
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