The burden without Bearden

Without Bearden, Buffalo has to replace more than just a point guard

On Tuesday, the Buffalo men’s basketball team had its first extended moments without its best player.

The Bulls (14-10, 7-4 Mid-American Conference) dropped a heartbreaker to Toledo 71-69, but the game was merely a backdrop for the larger story: sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden’s absence due to “conduct detrimental to the team.” After the game, head coach Nate Oats said that Bearden was “out indefinitely.”

We’ve already seen the Bulls without Bearden. He missed two games in the middle of season due to a foot injury. The Bulls had some success when he was injured – a 2-0 record – and they were seconds away from a perfect 3-0 record in games played without him. They also allowed just 64 points on average in those three games.

On the surface, we already witnessed some of the changes the Bulls will have to endure with Bearden on the sidelines. Senior guard/forward Rodell Wigginton moved into the starting lineup, junior wing Blake Hamilton played a bit more at the small forward spot and Oats played with an additional forward in junior David Kadiri.

When a coach tinkers with the lineup, it’s expected to reveal both positives and negatives. Hamilton was more of an offensive initiator against the Rockets, mixed in with freshman guard CJ Massinburg and senior guard Jarryn Skeete.

Bearden’s loss does hurt the Bulls defensively. Toward the end of Tuesday night’s game, the Bulls went cold and Toledo’s best guard – Bearden’s position to guard – got to the rim for a game-winning shot. And it’s not just that one play that changed that game. There were other parts of the game, like shooting percentage, ball movement and transition plays, that also need some adjustment.

Defensively is where I think Bearden’s absence will hurt the most. Bearden’s 102.2 defensive rating is good for fourth on the team, but it underrates his defensive value. He a fine on-ball defender, whose steals per game (1.7) and steal percentage (3.2) puts him among the top 50 in the nation.

It’s also a different game defending point guards, more specifically, defending the opposing team’s main offensive initiator. We’ve seen Skeete successfully defend guards in the past, but Bearden’s ability to defend opposing guards and disrupt an offense is an underrated skill in his game. The Buffalo defense took a step forward during MAC play, and as a result, Bearden’s defensive rating dropped during conference play to 97.8.

Oats and the Bulls will be forced to micro-manage these areas of the game while their star guard sits on the sidelines.

Bearden’s best attribute as a player is his ability to get to the free throw line. So far this season, Bearden has taken 21 percent of the team’s free throws. Think about it this way: Bearden has taken just 72 more field goal attempts than free throw attempts. When you combine that with his ball handling and playmaking duties, Bearden is one of the more ball-dominant players on the team.

Bearden’s ability to get to the free throw line serves three areas: it gets opposing players in foul trouble, it creates a safety valve in the offense and when you have to worry about a good driver, teams tend to overplay them, leading to open shots for shooters. All four of the Bulls’ best shooters – Massinburg, Skeete, Hamilton and junior wing Willie Conner – are assisted on at least 80 percent of their three-pointers this season.

The Bulls have overlapping talent with shooters, ball-handlers, defenders of various size, but they don’t have a singular talent similar to Bearden. Does that make him the team’s best player? Not necessarily. But it makes him tough to replicate with him out.

I continue to beat the drum that Bulls are talented enough to go back to the NCAA Tournament, but the loss of Bearden for the immediate future only clouds their path. They still remain second in the MAC, but with Bearden out, the Bulls go up to face Ohio (15-8, 6-5 MAC), MAC-leading Akron (20-4, 9-2 MAC) and Bowling Green (13-11, 4-7 MAC) in consecutive games. Oats confirmed Bearden is out against Ohio on Friday night and it’s unclear whether or not he’ll be active for the Zips or the Falcons.

I say 2-1 is a success, but 1-2 isn’t out of the question.

For now, the Bulls will have to push forward without their star guard.

Quentin Haynes is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @HaynesTheWriter.