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Men’s basketball expects another magical season

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Associate head coach Jim Whitesell tells his players to stay low as he watches them play five-on-five.

The next play, sophomore guard Jayvon Graves turned the ball over and immediately walked off the court. A tick mark went next to his name on a white board and Graves lifted and carried a 30-pound sack up and down the court. It was a reminder to not make the same mistake.

Men’s basketball is the No. 1 team in the Mid-American Conference after last year’s program-defining season. The Bulls broke the school record in wins and recorded their first-ever NCAA tournament win. With less than a week to the Bulls’ opening exhibition against Daemen College, head coach Nate Oats is ready to repeat.

“We expect to win the MAC again,” Oats said. “It's not going to be easy. We have a big bullseye on our back, but that's what our expectation is. We got the one tournament win under our belt and hopefully we can take that experience and translate [it] into multiple wins and get into the second week of the tournament. None of it's easy.”

Some of those challenges may be easier than others.

The Bulls return their core group of players including three seniors who each averaged over 15 points per game last season.

Back-to-back MAC Sixth Man of the Year and senior forward Nick Perkins looks bigger than ever and will finally take over a starting role for Buffalo.

Buffalo’s projected opening night lineup will see four seniors get the start with junior guard Davonta Jordan being the only one not a part of that group.

Perkins and senior guard CJ Massinburg are the only players to be on the Bulls roster for the past four years. Oats wants all his players to leave the program in a better position than when they got here. They have already done that, according to Oats.

“This season is going to be pretty special since it's [Massinburg’s and Perkins’] last one,” Massinburg said. “We've been improving every year and our numbers have been getting better, our leadership skills have been getting better and now it's on us. We're going to try to display everything we've been learning and just put it all together this year.”

Last season, Massinburg tied the school record for most points in a season with 611. 

The Bulls boast depth at every position, which gives them the advantage over many teams.

When Jordan and Massinburg get a break, the Bulls send former MAC Defensive Player of the Year and senior guard Dontay Caruthers and Graves, who led the team in blocked shots last season. 

When senior forward Jeremy Harris sits, the Bulls bring in freshman Jeenathan Williams; the 20th best small forward in the country for the class of 2018 by Rivals. The Bulls also added sophomore transfer Tra’Von Fagan and sophomore center Brock Bertram looks to excel in his second year to add depth to the frontcourt.

Key to the Bulls’ success this season and for the future will be the development of Williams and freshman point guard Ronaldo “Rondo” Segu.

Unlike past seasons, the Bulls spent little time working on fundamentals in the pre-season and were ready to jump right into executing their offense because of the team’s experience.

This leads to a higher learning curve than normal for the two freshmen, but each senior has taken them under their wing, according to Segu.

“Just to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Segu said. “Try to elevate the team and just be very positive this year and try to be open and learning from the people that have been here before me, and making the program better and improving.”

In a closed exhibition against Albany, Williams showed flashes and scored 19 points in a game where Buffalo dominated, according to Jeff Goodman at watchstadium.com.

The Bulls will continue to play a blue-collar style of basketball this season. It is something that suits the city of Buffalo, Oats feels. Oats wants his players to fight for loose balls, offensive rebounds, take charges and emphasize the hard work it takes to win.

Buffalo will need to work hard and capitalize on its non-conference schedule. The Bulls play West Virginia and Southern Illinois for two of their first three games this season. Both teams are expected to make the NCAA tournament.

The Bulls will also travel to Syracuse, Marquette and St. Bonaventure to round out their non-conference schedule.

“I think it's better to play the best competition than some non-Division I's. We'll get to test ourselves early,” Oats said. “I think it's better to find out all your weaknesses and get exposed early and get them fixed rather than wait until conference play to do all of that.”

The Bulls are ready to dominate the MAC again and become the mid-major team to beat this season.

“We can't be complacent,” Massinburg said. “Last year is over and that team is done with, in the history books. Now we got to make a new destiny, make a new ceiling and reach new heights.”

Nathaniel Mendelson is the sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @NateMendelson