Second half success: UB men's and women’s basketball have tools, talent for conference runs
The Buffalo men’s basketball team is sitting at 11-9 overall and 4-3 in Mid-American Conference play. The women’s team is 10-8 overall, 2-5 in MAC play and in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Clearly, both teams will need to make adjustments to make it to Cleveland come March and have any amount of success there.
I think they can do it. Heading into the regular season, I thought both teams would have various levels of success.
And I refuse to back down now.
For the men’s team, I thought this team was capable of making it back to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a combination of returning players and a collection of talented, NBA-sized recruiting class. I wasn’t as hopeful for the women’s team, but as they started strong, I wondered if a run in the MAC Tournament and MAC East was possible.
But both teams have hit a couple of snags. Outside of the 92-78 loss to Western Michigan, the women’s team was right there in three of their four losses in the streak. Junior guard Joanna Smith is in the midst of a hot streak on the offensive end, while sophomore guard Stephanie Reid continues to play well.
Junior center Cassie Oursler has joined the team and provided some size in the frontcourt. After Smith, Oursler, Reid and sophomore forward Katherine Ups, who’s averaging 6.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the Bulls are in need of another player stepping forward. Sophomore forwards Lisa Ups and Mariah Suchan seem like the likely candidates to do just that.
I’m also a believer of head coach Felisha Legette-Jack getting that one more player to step up. If someone can step up and provide solid scoring while maintaining the Bulls’ defense, the team can turn it around and look like the good team they were before the losing streak.
As for the men’s team, I feel like the Bulls don’t have the right starting lineup, but they have the right talent. The loss of senior forward Raheem Johnson for the season hurts the frontcourt, but the Bulls have great size on the wings, enough so that I think they can still be effective in terms of rim protection and rebounding – two of the biggest issues when playing small ball.
The lineup that I’m the most curious about is guards C.J. Massinburg and Lamonte Bearden in the backcourt and Willie Conner, Rodell Wigginton and Blake Hamilton in the frontcourt. The lineup provides the three of the team’s best finishers at the rim (Massinburg at 60.3 percent, Conner at 62.3 percent and Hamilton at 67.9 percent), two excellent rim drivers in Bearden and Massinburg and two impressive spot-up shooters in Conner and Hamilton.
This theoretical lineup brings freshman forwards Nick Perkins and Ikenna Smart and senior guard Jarryn Skeete off the bench. Skeete is perhaps the best three-point shooter Buffalo offers, while Perkins and Smart can provide size and rebounding as an occasional deep threat as well off the bench. In the event the Bulls go up against larger frontcourts, they can play more of Smart and Perkins, but I think the five-man unit listed above is the key for a successful second half for the Bulls.
Even with the changes to the lineup, the Bulls can’t go anywhere if the defense doesn’t improve. The Bulls are currently ranked 187th in the NCAA in defensive efficiency. They are near the bottom in most other major defensive categories in the conference. One of the main ideas head coach Nate Oats has pushed in postgame press conferences is that he wants his team to play better on the defensive end, and it’s tough to blame him.
Last season, as an assistant, the Bulls had that second gear on defense – the ability to create turnovers and go on long runs. There were moments throughout last season where the Bulls completely stifled teams and turned smaller leads into 10, 15 and even 20-point leads on a consistent basis. This team, at this moment in time, is missing that needed extra gear.
Both the men and women are looking to recreate some of the success they had last season – the men’s team came away with their first-ever MAC Championship and NCAA Tournament bid. The women’s team made it to their first-ever WNIT Tournament. Making it to the postseason again would only help the Bulls and their legitimization of their basketball programs.
But it’s clear that halfway through the season, both teams have some needs and problems to address. The women’s team needs that one more player to step up, giving Legette-Jack and her coaching staff one more player they can rely on for offensive production. As for the men’s team, perhaps a stronger starting lineup could be what helps them breakout from the middle of the pack and rise in the MAC East.
For the programs and for the sake of my predictions, let’s hope that all of these things happen and both teams make impressive second half turnarounds.