While a select 16 teams are battling it out for a national championship, the UB Bulls can rest at home, knowing they are in good shape for seasons to come. After all, they have undisputedly the best freshmen class in the nation - in the classroom.
Jason Bird, Mark Bortz, Turner Battle, and Daniel Gilbert comprise the men's basketball freshman class that compiled the highest GPA out of all other freshman classes in the country, at 3.35/4.0.
Bulls Head Coach Reggie Witherspoon knew he had landed some bona fide student athletes when he signed Battle and the three Michigan players. But, he says, what has made them excel is more than simply raw talent.
"The formula for being successful both on and off the court is hard work," said Witherspoon. "These four guys are very dependable. If you look at what they did in the classroom, that tells you these guys are going to do whatever you ask them to do."
One other thing Witherspoon could not have foreseen was the bond that has developed between the four, which began to solidify at the end of last season.
"We're together all day. We wake up together, eat breakfast together, practice together, we go to classes together. I think that's one of the reasons for our success. We're around each other so much, we're like brothers," said Bortz.
"Everywhere you see one of us, most of the time you'll see all four of us," said Bird.
While Witherspoon and academic advisor Tyra Goodgain have helped the players excel, the value of education was bestowed upon them long before they entered Alumni Arena.
"We knew coming in that school comes first. Our parents told us if we don't have success in class, we're not going to have success in life," Battle said.
Battle is known as "the general" among the group because of his awareness of where his teammates are at all times. The class' most prolific member made the All-Mac Freshman Team but realizes what he needs to improve upon before next season. More than anything, Battle said, he needs to become a lot more vocal both on and off the court.
Danny Gilbert is a versatile 6-foot-6 guard, a blue-collar player whose contribution may not show up in the stat sheets but can mean the difference between wins and losses.
"Danny is blossoming into one of the better defenders in the conference," said Witherspoon. "He can rebound at either end of the court."
Jason Bird, a rangy wing player who can get to the basket as well as shoot the three, has the potential to put up big numbers. He said he needs to pick up the scoring load and become more aggressive on offense next year.
At 6-10, Bortz has the potential to be a 20-point, 10-rebound-a-game player in the MAC. Assistant Coach Jim Kwitchoff compares Bortz to Marshall's J.R. VanHoose, a big man who can shoot from outside. An off-season in the weight room should make him into a much more intimidating post player, and more of a shot-blocking presence.
Certainly, the Bulls will feel the loss of this year's senior class. But, Darcel Williams, Louis Campbell and Robert Brown, the Bulls' three leading scorers for 2001-2002, only spent one full season together on the roster. One thing lacking from Buffalo's program since its inception is continuity, due in large part to the number of junior college transfers the team has attracted.
Jason Bird said he thinks the team will improve next year; his goal is for every year to be better than the last. With Buffalo's top three scorers graduating, that will be a difficult goal to meet, but those aren't just idle words. The promise lies in their discipline, which, before a home game against Akron, kept them practicing all night, studying the entire next day, and enabled them all to turn in solid performances on game night.
Still don't believe this class has the potential to top the MAC? Just ask their teachers.