Don’t count out the champion UB Bulls

Men can repeat as champions, but it will take some time to do so

As soon as the Mid-American Conference Championship banner was revealed on the wall of Alumni Arena, something changed.

There was unexpected life from the crowd for an exhibition game. There were even more fans present than some regular season games last season.

The banner rising helped everyone forget, even if just for a second, that no matter how different the men’s basketball team looks when it takes the court for its first official game Friday, it will so as the reigning MAC Champions.

In the words of graduated forward Xavier Ford, it’s something that can never be taken away from them.

And there’s a great chance a championship can happen again.

But it will take another gritty season to make it happen. That’s because the Bulls’ offseason was one to remember for all the wrong reasons.

You know the story – Bobby Hurley bolts for Arizona State and takes Shannon Evans with him. Justin Moss gets expelled from UB.

I can name plenty of reasons why the Bulls won’t repeat as champions. Central Michigan is projected to wipe the floor with the rest of the MAC after returning almost all of last year’s team. Kent State and Akron also have returning players and brought in stellar recruiting classes.

And, of course, Buffalo’s tumultuous offseason.

But three practices, one exhibition game and a Bulls Madness pep rally of this year’s team sold me it can make another deep run into the MAC Tournament.

But it’s going to take time.

You can’t just throw players together and expect a championship. The reason Buffalo made such a deep run last year was because the team was able to build great chemistry during the season. It will come for this year’s team too, just not over night.

I think this team could easily go 8-5 in the 13 non-conference games. There are easy wins to claim against teams like Pitt-Bradford, Niagara and Binghamton, but there is also a deadly road trip to Duke and Iowa State in the beginning of December.

But one game that stuck out to me was Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I’ve seen Buffalo compete with good competition. There’s no reason this team can’t knock off the Rams in the second-to-last non-conference game.

Buffalo is most likely to be a .500 MAC team, but with three of its victories coming in the final four games of the season. The beginning of MAC play could be dangerous with Akron, Kent State and Central Michigan as three of Buffalo’s first four opponents. Buffalo, a team with eight new faces, will learn how competitive conference play will be and this could set them back, but not enough to keep them out of the MAC Tournament.

By that time, head coach Nate Oats will have figured out a system that works and personnel sets for specific situation. My problem with last year’s team was its depth – Hurley only played eight players.

I don’t see that happening again.

The new players bring depth at various positions on the floor. Players like junior wing Willie Conner and freshman forward Nick Perkins could be 30-minute-per-game players. And there’s still freshman CJ Massinburg, who dazzled with 25 points for Buffalo in the exhibition game last week.

It would be easy to write this team off. Buffalo is a brand-new team with few key players that returned. The season can easily turn erratic.

But I don’t see that happening. Why? Because last Friday’s banner ceremony convinced me that this team wants it again. They don’t care about the skeptics. They’ll forget about the departed players. This is the 2015-16 team – a group of players that doesn’t want to be remembered for last season’s success.

They’re ready to make history of their own.

Season prediction: (17-13, 9-9 Mid-American Conference)

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