Chemistry Binds Young Team Together
Bulls May Be Better Than Expected
As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the realization of defeat crept into the heads of six graduating seniors, it became clear that the Bulls let another opportunity slip through their collective fingers in last year's Mid-American Conference men's basketball tournament.
The second-round exit was heartbreaking for a group of six seniors who would never again don the blue and white.
But that was last year; it was a different team, and every player that remains a Bull learned from the defeat.
"Last season was really disappointing," said junior forward Mitchell Watt. "But we're coming back with a lot of firepower. We're ranked really low in the MAC [preseason polls] and people are underestimating us… This is probably the most cohesive and team-oriented team I have ever played on."
It's been an exciting month for Watt after his performance at Midnight Madness landed one of his dunks on the front page of Yahoo!
While head coach Reggie Witherspoon is excited to see what the youngsters can do, he admits that the team will have to find a way to replace the guys that graduated.
Former guard Rodney Pierce and forward Calvin Betts were the leaders of the team last season. Pierce's offensive production and Betts' grittiness and rebounding prowess gave the Bulls an identity and two guys the team could depend on when times got tough.
While Witherspoon doesn't expect one guy to replace such important players, he thinks that a team effort and the opportunity for several guys to contribute will.
"We're going to have to [replace them] collectively," Witherspoon said. "When we do it with balance we could have a different guy on each night [step up]. That's an exciting process and I think we can grow into a team that does that."
While it's easy to be excited for the beginning of a new season, the Bulls also have several question marks.
Senior point guard Byron Mulkey is taking over for former point guard John Boyer. He was redshirted last season and is expected to be a big contributor both offensively and defensively for the Bulls this season.
Sophomore Tony Watson III didn't get many minutes last year but will serve as the sixth man for the Bulls this season, a role previously held by former guard Sean Smiley. Watson has worked on his shooting over the summer and Witherspoon has seen an improvement in his game. If he is able to perform consistently, he can be a huge factor for the Bulls off the bench.
Boyer's and Smiley's shooting abilities will be missed this season; their long-range accuracy kept the team in games at points last year. Junior shooting guard Zach Filzen is expected to fill that void and has shown flashes of his range during his short time at UB.
Something Bulls fans have to be excited about is the team chemistry the Bulls have developed in the wake of the mass departures. The guys have developed a bond and it starts with Witherspoon. He is constantly coaching the young players and trying to get them ready for the college game.
"They're trying to learn how we do things, but they're also learning how to work at this level," Witherspoon said. "They're very talented but they're not used to working this hard. I said this a lot when I was with USA Basketball in the summer: kids can be a victim of their own talent."
One of the biggest knocks on freshman forward Javon McCrea has been his tendency to take games off. He was so dominant on the high school level that he grew accustomed to doing what he wanted whenever he wanted to.
At the Division I level, the game is faster and tougher, and it requires full mental focus whenever a player steps onto the floor.
Witherspoon is expecting at least one of the freshmen to step up and really help the team this season.
"If you're a fan, you're going to come and say one of these five guys is going to come out and blossom," Witherspoon said. "But you don't know which one it will be. It's like what is behind door number three. If they keep playing hard and keep coming back from instances where there is turbulence they'll be fine."
There are several intriguing matchups this season for the Bulls. On Dec. 4, Buffalo travels to Olean, N.Y. to take on St. Bonaventure. It will be the first matchup between the two schools since the 1998-99 season.
BYU and guard Jimmer Fredette visit Alumni Arena on Dec. 30. The Bulls also battle local rivals Canisius and Niagara again this season.
The first game of the year is on Saturday when the Bulls host Navy (0-1) at Alumni Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for noon.