​UB Bulls basketball preview: Men move forward without Bearden, women hope to get back on track

The Spectrum

Men's basketball (14-10, 7-4 Mid-American Conference) 

Just when it seemed everything was clicking for the Buffalo men's basketball team, not much has gone right for the Bulls during the past week. 

It started with the suspension of sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden. He sat out last Tuesday’s loss to Toledo (15-9, 6-5 MAC), which ended Buffalo's four-game winning streak. Buffalo also lost some of its depth when freshman wing Nikola Rakicevic lost his mother suddenly and returned to Serbia to be with his family.

Buffalo has hit lows before, even around this time last season when NCAA Tournament hopes were in doubt after a three-game losing streak.

They’ve rebounded just fine in the past. And the Bulls hope history repeats itself as they try to sustain their spot near the top of the MAC. 

“Instead of being one game behind Akron, we’re two games behind,” said head coach Nate Oats. “Now, we’re all alone in second place. Ohio is right behind us, so we have to come out and beat them and make some separation.”

Buffalo hosts Ohio (15-8, 6-5 MAC) Friday in hopes of creating more separation between second and third place. The Bulls then look to close the gap on a red-hot Akron team (20-4, 9-2 MAC), that is winners of its last seven games, next Tuesday on the road. 

And they’ll be doing so without Bearden yet again.

During Thursday's practice, Oats confirmed that Bearden will not play on Friday against the Bobcats and it is widely speculated he will miss next Tuesday’s game as well for his team-mandated punishment. It means more opportunity for senior guard Jarryn Skeete to run the point.

“It’s my natural position,” Skeete said. “I’m super comfortable. I like getting my guys involved. I’m a pass-first player.”

But Bearden's absence is still a blow no matter how it’s looked at. Bearden is leading the team in both points(13.5) and assists per game (3.5), and gets to the free throw line more than any other player.

Missing the star point guard, especially against Ohio, could be a tremendous difference maker.

One of the Bobcat's standouts is guard Jaaron Simmons, a transfer from Houston who took over the reigns of point guard at the beginning of the season. He’s averaging 14.0 points and 8.0 assists per game and is a tremendous shooter from the field.

And he’s only getting better, as he scored 24 points and dished out 12 assists in a win over Northern Illinois (16-8, 5-6 MAC) on Saturday. For Buffalo, it’s happening at the wrong time.

“Their point guard over the last five games has averaged 10 assists,” Oats said. “[Simmons] is the key to the game. He’s averaging 14 points per game. He’s making things happen.”

Another player to watch is Michigan State transfer Kenny Kaminski. He’s usually plays the four, but has capability of playing the three. That means the already-ailing Bulls will have to get a little more versatile. Freshman forward Ikenna Smart, who has problems guarding players faster than him, will have to step out of the paint and guard the perimeter at times.

In fact, Oats wants everyone to guard the perimeter.

In Buffalo’s second matchup this week, the Bulls face Akron in a rematch of the conference opener that Buffalo dropped by four points. The main proponent that the Bulls need to contain is three-point shooting. The Zips connected on 12 of 37 three-pointers the first time the teams met up. Skeete doesn’t expect the Zips to stop shooting three’s, but he does expect Buffalo to contend their shots.

“I would limit their clean looks. I don’t think you can really limit their amount of attempts because they’re going to put them up no matter what you do," Skeete said. "They only made 12. If they only made 7 or 8 completely contested, we’re going to have a chance.”

There is no timetable for Rakicevic’s return from Serbia. His mother suddenly passed away last Sunday and he has been in Serbia, his native country, with his sister and father. Oats does not plan on rushing him back.

“We’ll get him back here when it’s appropriate to get him back here,” Oats said. “It’s a tough situation. I want to be sensitive to his situation.”

Buffalo hosts Ohio at Alumni Arena on Friday night. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.

Women’s basketball (11-11, 3-8, MAC)

The Buffalo women’s basketball team almost pulled one out in Toledo (13-9, 8-3 MAC).

The Bulls played a great defensive game against the Rockets, taking a one-point lead into halftime. It was an 18-point third quarter gave the Rockets the lead as they closed the deal in the fourth quarter.

It was the second consecutive loss for the Bulls, but one that head coach Felisha Legette-Jack said can be built upon.

“We did a good job on the defensive end,” Legette-Jack said. “We had a fantastic first half, and I was hoping we could get a better lead going into halftime. I take blame for that. I could’ve done better with the defense. They played us really well, too. Hit us hard with corner cuts.”

Legette-Jack voiced that she wanted to get more effort from some of her ancillary players on the offensive end.

One move Legette-Jack tried was playing junior center Cassie Oursler off the bench and inserting freshman center Mirte Scheper into the starting lineup. Scheper played 15 minutes and finished with two rebounds. As for Oursler, she finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes of play.

“We’re continuing to see who can give us what,” Legette-Jack said, “Cassie is continuing to grow every game, we’re just trying to keep her in the game long-term. The longer we can keep her in the game, the better we can play.”

The Bulls hope they can get similar production from Oursler, and their defense, on Saturday against Bowling Green (8-12, 4-7 MAC).

Despite a sub-.500 record, the Falcons have an offense that has four shooters hitting at least 34 percent of their three-point attempts. Inside the perimeter, center Lauren Tibbs leads the team with 11.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

One thing sophomore guard Stephanie Reid saw in their scouting is transition defense.

“We’ve scouted them,” Reid said. “Bowling Green is very good shooting team, something we're going to have to lock into is our defense. Go-to defensive matchup, and we’re going to have to push because they aren’t a good transition defense. Getting baskets in transition will be key.”

As for Legette-Jack’s plan, the Bulls have made improvements on their defense over the last handful of games, holding some of the best teams in the MAC to well less than their season point-per-game average.

Buffalo then returns to Alumni Arena to host Eastern Michigan (14-8, 5-6 MAC) on Wednesday. The Eagles may rank near the bottom of the MAC West, but their 72.8 points per game is good for second in the conference. 

Despite the challenges Buffalo will face against their opponents this week, Legette-Jack doesn’t plan to make any changes on defense.

“Stay true to who we are on the defensive end and we play a matchup zone,” Legette-Jack said. “We’re not going to change to who we are because of who we play. I believe in this system, and as we continue to improve, we’re going to use this system. We got to box out and run and hopefully, our defense shows up like last week.”

The Bulls' game against Bowling Green is set for 4 p.m. Saturday. 

Jordan Grossman and Quentin Haynes are the senior sports editors and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com. Follow them on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman and @HaynesTheWriter