UB women’s basketball is ahead of schedule

Bulls’ postseason success, returning talent could create successful period for Bulls

COLUMBUS, OHIO – The Buffalo women’s basketball team’s NCAA Women’s Tournament game against Ohio State Friday looked exactly what it was: two different basketball teams from two different levels.

The Bulls were run out of the gym by their Big Ten Conference counterpart.

My first reaction was shock that Buffalo, fresh off a successful conference tournament run, could look barley competitive. Then I stopped and remembered just how far this team had come from the start of the regular season – how we started to see some of its strengths and how players you didn’t know about five months ago stepped up in moments you could’ve never imagined.

I remembered this team is ahead of schedule.

The Bulls (20-14, 8-10 Mid-American Conference) seemed to be at a crossroads heading into this season. Two top forwards, Kristin Sharkey and Christa Baccas, graduated. Mackenzie Loesing saw her career ended by an ankle injury. Alexus Malone, an up-and-coming sophomore forward, transferred back home.

That’s not to say there weren’t things to like. As Loesing’s career began to unwind, junior guard Joanna Smith, then a sophomore, began to blossom. After arriving to the Bulls in January of 2015, sophomore guard Stephanie Reid instantly commanded the team, seized the point guard position and thrived.

Good pieces, and yet, the Bulls were picked to finish last in the MAC East by the preseason coaches’ poll. A slow, dwindling decline back into obscurity seemed likely.

The exact opposite happened. The Bulls would win the MAC Championship and be the representative in the NCAA Tournament.

Before you even look at the floor and the players that patrol it, look at the coach. Head coach Felisha Legette-Jack has done an excellent job in working with the players she had on the roster, while solidifying a culture, led by a suffocating defensive system. In what looked to be a “rebuilding” year for some, Legette-Jack turned it into a winning season.

That system allowed her team to continue to grow. Smith, the budding sophomore, evolved into an all-around leader as a junior. She led the Bulls in scoring, played good defense and was an offensive catalyst from game one. Reid took a step forward as an offensive force, while maintaining the balance of facilitating and scoring.

And around those two, everyone else seemed to get better. The mid-season arrival of junior center Cassie Oursler gave the Bulls another outlet for offense, this time in the interior. Sophomore forwards Katherine Ups and Mariah Suchan gave the Bulls two versatile defenders with budding offensive games, while Courtney Wilkins provided the shooting element, and is slowly progressing as a defender.

To add to the team’s success came three freshmen, center Mirte Scheper and guards Gabi Bade and Brittany Morrison, all providing elements to the roster. Scheper will eventually be a strong rim protector for the Bulls, while Morrison’s defensive versatility and Bade’s three-point shooting will give Legette-Jack some flexibility with the roster.

Here’s the kicker – they’re all set to return. I named nine players, all of which, made some level of positive impact for the Bulls this past season. They all return next season.

The Bulls finished second in the conference in scoring defense, but they were the best defense in the conference. They were ranked No. 1 for the majority of the season. When you think being ranked number one in the aspect of the game, you think refined play, years of experience coalescing into elite play.

But this team was ranked No. 1 for the majority of the regular season with five underclassmen soaking up the majority of the minutes.

The offense will come around and I think we’ve already seen steps forward to that. With Buffalo’s big three of Smith, Oursler and Reid absorbing several possessions, it’s getting good shooters, both from three-point and mid-range, that can find open shots around them that will help the offense. Some players – Wilkins, Bade, Ups - have had some level of success in this matter, getting wide open jumpers around a penetrating Reid or double-teamed Smith or Oursler.

There’s no exact equation to success. Yet, there are certain things that you want in order to be successful. In college basketball, it’s experience, talent and good coaching. You want the people who can properly run the show and leader to organize it.

The Bulls now have that. Before this season, they had pieces, but you couldn’t be sure they would come together. Next season, we’ll know the Bulls have two guards who affect the game on both ends of the floor, a strong post presence and multiple players who can defend multiple positions. It’s not crazy if the Bulls took the jump to a team that wins upwards of 20-25 games next season.

I previously wrote that the men are experiencing a golden age in its basketball program, and I think you can say the same for the women’s team. Two seasons with 19 or more victories, a MAC Championship and two consecutive postseason appearances is no small feat.

Eventually, the trickle down effect will lead to the Bulls becoming more of a household name, which leads to recruiting more talent, which will equal more victories on the floor and players and coaches moving up through the ringer that is college basketball.

It’s good to dream. It’s fun to think one day, the Bulls will be able to walk into the home of a Ohio State or Michigan State and pull out the victory, but for now, let’s deal with what we know: The Bulls are ahead of schedule and have the talent to stay here for the long haul.

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