UB Bulls on the right track despite losses to Duke, Iowa State

Buffalo has the rotation and defense, now it needs offense to click

On paper, the results weren’t pretty for the Buffalo men’s basketball team last week.

The Bulls (4-5) have lost three in a row, including a closer-than-you-think game against No. 5 Duke and a first half back-and-forth affair against No. 2 Iowa State. 

But if you watched the games, you saw the Bulls begin to make strides as they head into the final stretch of non-conference play.

Defensively, the Bulls appear to be a different team – one that can matchup with some of the best teams in the country. They entered the season with size from their forward positions, as guys like junior wing Willie Conner, senior forward/guard Rodell Wigginton and junior forward Blake Hamilton can help defend multiple positions.

The return of senior center Raheem Johnson from injury Monday offers another element. Johnson’s ability to man the center position allows the team to have a traditional center and play a more traditional lineup – three guards and two post players. Defensively, it allows head coach Nate Oats to go and play more zone defense, which is something he mentioned after the Iowa State (7-0) loss.

Once Johnson is 100 percent healthy, I expect him to assume the role of a starting defensive anchor at the rim. And through the team’s first nine games, I think we’ve seen Oats and his staff begin to figure out their bench.

Hamilton is the Swiss Army knife of the group – capable of doing a bit of everything from scoring to rebounding to defending. Freshman forward Nick Perkins is still figuring out his role, but provides size in the second unit. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him is a developing three-point shot.

And then there’s freshman guard CJ Massinburg.

Massinburg gives Buffalo another point guard off the bench. He had a good game against Duke (8-1), scoring 17 points with some impressive finishes at the rim. He’s not shooting the ball particularly well, but he’s getting to the rim where he’s shooting 58 percent, according to hoop-math.com. He’s also a difference maker for this young team. He was the name that ESPN broadcasters brought up the most over during Buffalo’s past two games against national contenders.

With Johnson’s return, it seems like Bulls have the perfect number, nine, for their rotation.

Now if they can only get the offense together.

That’s really the lone problem. I think the offense could be much better and it hasn’t taken the next step yet. When Oats talks about the offense, he mentions how they need to take better shots and have more ball movement – and I agree with that sentiment. Against Iowa State, there were several possessions where Buffalo took the shot too early in the shot clock.

Personally, I liked what the Bulls did against St. Bonaventure (5-2) last week in the first half. There was a bunch of ball movement and Buffalo attacked the basket more times than usual. They either got the shot off or got free throws and made the Bonnies’ room for error decrease more and more as they drew them further into the bonus. Had the three-point shot fell in that game for Buffalo – it went 1 for 13 during that game – it probably would have had a victory going into the road trip.

Someone needs to start spacing the floor to get the three-ball going again. It was one of Buffalo’s strengths last season and must be rebounded once again.

Senior guard Jarryn Skeete played well against Iowa State and he’s going to knock down 38 to 40 percent from beyond the arc by the time the season’s over, but the Bulls need one more guy, possibly even two, to start hitting three’s.

One of the reasons the Bulls were able to win the Mid-American Conference Tournament last season was former guard Shannon Evans catching fire from three at the tail end of the season. If someone like Conner or Perkins – preferably both – can move up toward about 33 percent shooting from three, combine that with Massinburg’s and sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden’s ability to get to the rim, that’s a dangerous offense to deal with.

With new faces up and down the rotation and a new man in charge, the Bulls weren’t expected to go 9-0 and be ranked in the top-25, but they weren’t expected to have the early struggles like they did against St. Joseph’s and Old Dominion.

Regardless, the Bulls turned a corner this past week in games against Iowa State and Duke. With four more games before the Bulls head into MAC play, they have a foundation in place with solid defensive stretches.

If the Bulls can put it together for 40 minutes, while figuring out how to work as a cohesive offensive unit, I expect Buffalo to be right there in contention during conference play.

Quentin Haynes is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @HaynesThe Writer.