UB men's basketball has no reason to panic about losing Hurley, Evans and Moss

Remember, last year wasn’t supposed to be “the year” either.

The 2014-15 men’s basketball team entered the season without its top three players from the year before. The team wasn’t big. They didn’t have elusive scorers. They were bounced in the first round of the 2014 Mid-American Conference Tournament after some projected them to win it all.

But alas, all the naysayers were silenced when the Bulls went on the shock the conference and win the MAC.

Why can’t that happen again?

Albeit an almost nonexistent sample size – I watched their first practice last Friday in Alumni Arena – the 2015-16 Bulls have a legitimate shot at contending for another championship. It won’t be the standard route, being dominant from beginning to end. And it could very well be a rebuilding season as Buffalo adjusts to new head coach Nate Oats and a new personnel set.

But after watching one portion of a practice, I realized this team, that has been criticized so much, is not too far off from last year’s squad. If anything, they could be better.

There hasn’t been much positive publicity since the Bulls made the NCAA Tournament last March. Star point guard Shannon Evans and recruits Maurice O’Field and Torian Graham headed off to Tempe, Arizona to join former head coach Bobby Hurley at Arizona State, while MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss was expelled from UB for theft.

But there’s something everyone forgets about the aforementioned people: they’re replaceable. I know this because those stars were once replacements themselves.

Moss was simply a role player with limited minutes two seasons ago. The reigning Player of the Year flashed potential but wasn’t much of a factor behind UB all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea.

Graham and O’Field never even logged a minute for Buffalo. How do we know they would have lived up the hype?

And while Buffalo lost Hurley, a coach can only do so much. He was a source of energy on the sidelines with a household name for recruits, but he wasn’t the one dishing up assists and buckets on the court.

Their departures hurt, don’t get me wrong. But it won’t matter in the long run.

I’ve said it before, but Oats was the best choice for this job. His players respect him and he plans on running the same system as Hurley. There’s no real difference between the two coaches other than Hurley is a household name where Oats has admitted he’s a “no name” guy.

I drew up one important conclusion while watching the practice – Buffalo’s production may not drop off. No Evans? Fine. Sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden put on eight pounds of muscle and is ready to run the point.

No Moss? Fine. Redshirt freshman forward Ikenna Smart and senior forward Raheem Johnson can take over that role like Moss did for McCrea last year. We’ve never seen Smart play, but his presence alone is intimidating – his 6-foot-10 frame will automatically be the biggest body on the floor. Johnson is finally discovering his offensive game, an area he desperately needed to develop (check out his first half of Buffalo’s game against West Virginia for proof). Of course, there’s no replacing Moss to the full extent. But different guys can fill in.

No Graham or O’Field? Fine. They never suited up for Buffalo, therefore they don’t even count as losses in my book.

Newcomers Willie Conner and Nick Perkins have begun to suit up in practice. And they can ball.

Conner, a junior transfer from Odessa Community College, is a scaled-down version of the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler – a 6-foot-5 swingman who can shoot from anywhere on the floor. Perkins, a true freshman forward, may be the best first-year player to ever play for Buffalo.

Of course, it’s not going to be easy. Like I said, it’s a transition year. Things are supposed to go wrong, like last year’s losing stretch in the middle of MAC play.

But it can easily turn around. We’ve seen it before.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.