The UB men’s basketball team is seeking redemption after consecutive losses in the MAC Championship Game and the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
The Bulls started off the 2021-22 season with an exhibition game against D-III Medaille College, where they dominated in all aspects of the game, winning 105-54 in front of fans for the first time in over 1 ½ years at Alumni Arena.
The ‘Big-3’ — seniors Ronaldo Segu, Josh Mballa and Jeenathan Williams — posted big numbers against the Mavericks, something they will be expected to do all season if the Bulls have any chance of returning to the Big Dance.
Both Segu and Williams were freshmen on the dominant 2018-19 team that went 32-4, ranked as high as 14th nationally and made it to the NCAA Tournament where they beat an Arizona State team that featured NBA defensive wiz Luguentz Dort.
The duo didn’t get much playing time thanks to the sheer talent around them, but head coach Jim Whitesell, who was an assistant on that staff, says it was good for them to be a part of the team, so they could learn and observe what winning should look like.
“It was a very good thing. They got to see what really good players were about and what the competition was going to be like,” Whitesell said. “It was humbling for those guys and I'm not exaggerating here but they stayed after every single practice and just worked. They stay dedicated to the cause and I’m counting on them this year.”
Although the trio of Segu, Mballa and Williams is expected to lead the team after an arguably disappointing season, there’s still work to be done for them to reach their full potential, Whitesell says.
Mballa is a dominant rebounder and interior offensive threat while Segu is a prolific playmaker who is underrated defensively. But it’s Williams, the team’s leading scorer from a season ago (17.6 per game) who has the chance to make the biggest impact for this team.
“[Jeenathan] has always been a great scorer, playmaker and defender but what we want from him this season is to work on his decision-making. We’ve been playing him at point guard in practice to get him more comfortable with the basketball and he’s worked so hard,” Whitesell said. “That’s a big part of why he’s grown. Then, defensively, we want him to be more versatile. Yeah, he’s always been a good rebounder but I think he can really make another jump in terms of decisions.”
Although Whitesell wants the most out of his seniors and is pushing them to continue improving in areas they don’t already excel in, he emphasized the importance of sticking to what they already do well, whether that’s Williams scoring, Segu’s playmaking or Mballa’s rebounding.
“We’re going to ask Jeenathan to shoot the ball. I say to Josh that he’s a very good rebounder, but can he be a great rebounder? Ronaldo always makes plays for his teammates, but can he be an outstanding playmaker this season?” Whitesell said. “We were one of the best rebounding teams in the country last year and we played very good defense for the most part and we have to hang our hats on that still.”
Aside from the team’s three leaders, there will be plenty of competition for the other two starting spots this season. Whitesell credited redshirt sophomore center David Skogman for exceeding his expectations for filling in the role of a big man nicely.
“When we did give him [Skogman] the opportunity to play, he showed his toughness and he gives you a blue collar attitude,” Whitesell said. “He shot over 75% over a six-game stretch when we started out, so yeah, he didn’t show a lot but he made sure his shots were productive enough that they mattered. His ball screen defense has gotten better and better and I’d like to see him continue rebounding the ball effectively.”
UB will kick off its season against No. 6 Michigan, before facing No. 23 St. Bonaventure and 2021 NCAA Tournament qualifier North Texas. Whitesell says he wanted the competition to be stiff right away because he knows his team is capable of sticking with these high-level teams.
“We wanted to go after a good NET score and that’s what got us into the NIT last year,” Whitesell said. “Getting in with only 16 teams when it’s normally 64 is really hard to do. This has always been our philosophy in terms of scheduling. Hopefully we’re good on the road early in the season and it’s great to be able to have our fans back. I know the kids are excited to return to Alumni and play in front of a full house for the first time in a long time.”
The Bulls have a tough opening night tilt ahead of them when they travel to Ann Arbor, MI on Wednesday to face the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines, who went 23-5 last season.
Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @HunterSkoczylas
Hunter Skoczylas is the sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, jamming to Fleetwood Mac and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.