Mulkey's Time to Shine
Byron Mulkey is the forgotten man of the men's basketball team.
When the team made its run to the Mid-American Conference Championship during the 2008-09 season, Mulkey, currently a senior point guard, rarely stepped on the court. His production came as a vocal motivator from the bench. Last season, Mulkey assumed a similar inactive position, but wore a button down and slacks to every game as a redshirt. He sat near the end of the bench and was essentially a front-row spectator.
It's been a long time coming, but Mulkey will once again be a productive member of the basketball team. He is now the team's leader.
Mulkey played a vital role during his first two years as a Bull but took a backseat during the last two seasons. He fell victim to a numbers game and backed up point guards Greg Gamble and John Boyer during the 2008-09 season. The following year, head coach Reggie Witherspoon redshirted him in order to provide this year's inexperienced team with senior leadership.
Despite unfavorable circumstances, Mulkey has taken everything in stride and has been an asset to the team throughout his tenure.
"Things were effective the way they were during the last two years, so we were going to run with it, simple as that," Mulkey said. "We were pretty senior-heavy last season. Along with me being in the same class, we would have had another senior gone this year had I played a year ago. Me coming back and giving the team another senior along with Jawaan Alston gives it another player that holds that leadership role and eases that bump of losing so many seniors and so much experience."
It also provides Mulkey his time to lead, which he's been patient to attain.
"A lot of preparation went into this season, starting last year and going through the summer and preseason," Mulkey said. "My anticipation is very high."
Vying for time
The 6-foot guard came to UB in 2006 as an undersized walk-on with no Division 1 scholarship offers. Witherspoon planned to redshirt Mulkey and allow him time to develop, but he was forced to play Mulkey after injuries crippled the point guard position. Mulkey made his debut on Jan. 31, 2007 and, to the surprise of many, impressed immediately. He became a staple in the lineup and averaged 9.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game.
Just like that, Mulkey became a player Bulls fans hyped up as a future All-MAC point guard. Some went as far as calling him the next Turner Battle, who is considered to be one of Buffalo's all-time best players. He played in all 30 games in 2007-08 and was expected to compete for the starting spot the next season.
But a position switch nullified that plan. Witherspoon moved Greg Gamble from small forward to point guard, pushing Mulkey to third on the depth chart for the 2008-09 season. The Bulls went 21-12 and found success with Gamble leading the team, but Mulkey found himself as a rarely used reserve. After averaging 32 minutes a game as a freshman and playing every game as a sophomore, Mulkey played in just nine games, averaged 5.6 minutes a game and scored a total of 16 points in 2008-09.
"It was obviously tough not playing. We decided to move Greg [Gamble] to the point, and it proved to be effective," Mulkey said. "My job was to continue being a vocal leader and make players better on the practice court. I just accepted my role knowing that we were getting better day in and day out, and those results showed on the court."
Mulkey came into last season with a refreshed attitude but was notified that he would redshirt before the season initiated. Witherspoon knew it was hard for Mulkey to ride the bench while his fellow classmates played and graduated, but he believes Mulkey took it extremely well.
"He's a very competitive person who loves challenges," Witherspoon said. "That's how he took the whole notion of redshirting."
Witherspoon's decision to redshirt Mulkey wasn't arbitrary. With seven seniors on last year's roster, the 12-year head coach faced the possibility of having one senior, reserve Jawaan Alston, leading a team of neophytes and inexperienced players this upcoming year, which begins Saturday with a game versus Navy.
The coach reflected on previous seasons and knew his team would not succeed with such limited leadership.
"The two years we've had difficulty in the last seven seasons have been times when our players were all young all at once. It was sort of the blind leading the blind," Witherspoon said. "Those have been the most difficult times, and having Byron helps us because we still only have two seniors, but we still have some semblance of leadership."
Mulkey was ambivalent about the redshirt decision: he dreaded the thought of another season on the bench but knew that 2010-11 season would be his year to lead and succeed.
And he's taken that role to heart. Not one practice goes by without Mulkey raving after a made 3-point shot or yelling after a defensive miscue. Mulkey is more vocal than he's ever been, despite holding the position of vocal motivator the last two seasons.
"It's critical for me to be vocal to prevent bad things from happening before they do so we can limit the learning curve," Mulkey said.
His lessons and teachings have helped the younger players. Nine of the 15 players on the roster are underclassmen, resulting in Mulkey constantly encouraging and instructing the roster.
"If I had to give Byron a nickname, it'd definitely be Big Brother," said sophomore point guard Tony Watson. "He's been a role model to me on the court and helps me out with every aspect of my game."
Mulkey's court time was limited the last two seasons, but he used the time in a productive manner. He received his bachelor's degree in business administration with two concentrations (human resources and marketing) during the spring semester and is currently enrolled in the Graduate School of Education on the administrative track.
Mulkey came to UB as part of the school's Daniel Acker Scholars Program, which paid for his tuition freshman year. Once Mulkey dazzled on the court, he earned Witherspoon's trust and a full athletic scholarship.
That didn't mean education changed priority levels. He worked endlessly to complete his degree on time, impressing the head coach who relegated him to bench player.
"It was a big-time challenge for him to accept the fact that the guys that he came in here with were going to go play and graduate, and that he wasn't going to play," Witherspoon said. "He did graduate and he did a terrific job managing that whole situation. He's in graduate school now, he's taking these guys under his wing, and we're excited about that.
For Mulkey, he considers it a blessing to attain his degree while playing basketball, but his limited playing time didn't mean he wasn't working hard to improve as a player. During every game, he made mental notes and learned from Buffalo's point guards. He worked tirelessly during practice to improve his jump shot and ball-handling abilities. Now, during practices, few of Mulkey's shots trickle out of the basket, and every opponent seems a step behind the reenergized and matured player.
"It's amazing how much you can learn just by watching. A lot of things opened up to me these past couple of years," Mulkey said. "I picked up a lot of things just from being able to watch and evaluate guys like Greg Gamble and John Boyer. I'll be able to display them this year."
His coach noticed the development as well.
"I think the competition that has occurred in practice and all the things that go along with that have helped ignite his development," Witherspoon said.
In a way, Mulkey is a forgotten man on a forgotten team. His situation is a microcosm to how every player is approaching this season, partially because Mulkey has instilled this mindset into his fellow Bulls.
"Day in and day out we go in with the mindset that everyone's forgotten about us. We lost a lot of seniors last year, we have a lot of freshmen this year, but that's no problem to us because we step into the gym each day, we work hard and we hope people have forgotten about us," Mulkey said. "We plan to surprise and be extremely competitive."