UB head coach Jim Whitesell left little doubt as to who his team’s leaders were heading into the season.
Whitsell dubbed a trio of seniors — forwards Josh Mballa and Jeenathan Williams and guard Ronaldo Segu — as the team’s “Big 3” prior to the 2021-22 campaign. The message was clear: it was on these players to get the Bulls back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
All three were major contributors to the 2020-21 team that fell to Ohio in the Mid-American Conference Championship, but unlike Mballa — who transferred in from Texas Tech prior to the 2019 season — Williams and Segu have been fixtures at UB since their freshman seasons.
With that status came some lofty expectations.
“Both of those kids really care about winning, they really care about winning,” Whitesell told The Spectrum last week. “The great thing [about it] is when they came in their freshman year, [that was] obviously the best school record we ever had. So they understand we’re always gonna play [a] really tough schedule and this is our style of play. They were like, ‘We’re going to embrace it.’ So they’ve done a really good job.”
Williams — the highest-rated recruit in program history — and Segu — the third-highest-rated recruit in school history — were members of UB’s historic 2018-19 team that set a school-record with 32 wins and ranked as high as No. 14 in the Associated Press Top 25.
Both Williams (3.2 points per game) and Segu (2.1 points per game) made modest contributions but appeared in all 36 games while coming off the bench as freshmen.
Now seniors, the pair have grown into their game and are arguably the best one-two punch in the conference.
Williams has morphed into a dominant three-level scorer who currently ranks second in the MAC at 19.4 points per game, while shooting 50% from the field.
Segu, an undersized yet calculated floor general, ranks second in the conference at 5.1 assists per game, and ninth at 15.1 points per contest.
The two have shown improvement every year, something Whitesell says stems from their unwavering desire to win.
Segu, in particular, has made immense strides with his three-point shot this season. The Orlando native is shooting a scorching 46.9% from deep, which is leaps and bounds better than his 39.8% from last season and his 36% clip from his sophomore and freshman years.
Segu says he had to attack his outside shooting in the offseason if he wanted to take his game to the next level, and he’s reaping the benefits of his work through seven games.
“I feel like in today’s game, if you can’t shoot you can’t play,” Segu said. “So I’ve been working on my three-point shot, my outside shot a lot. I’m just happy it’s come a long way.”
But Segu, or “Rondo” as his teammates and coaches call him, isn’t only getting it done on the offensive end.
Despite not standing an inch over six-feet-tall and weighing just 165 lbs., Segu plays physical defense, often electing to guard players as soon as they cross halfcourt.
Whitesell called Segu “one of the best defenders in our league,” and expressed the importance of his point guard’s experience guarding pro-level point guards in the MAC.
“In our league, there’s gonna be a lot of great point guards,” Whitesell said. “I think last year for Rondo was a great learning experience because the outstanding players in our league were point guards: Loren Cristian Jackson [formerly of Akron, now playing professionally with Chorale Roanne Basket of LNB Pro in France], Marreon Jackson [formerly of Toledo, now playing for Arizona State]. He really had to max out every night. He never had a night where it was like, ‘Hey, he had an easy or favorable matchup.’ It was like, ‘I gotta go get it done.’”
Williams, on the other hand, is one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the nation.
With the ability to score from the paint, the midrange area and the three-point line, he has the ability to take over a game on offense. He did so in an 88-76 road loss to then-No.6 Michigan, dropping a career-high 32 points on an efficient 14-for-22 from the field.
His scoring ability earned him attention from NBA scouts after he declared for the 2021 NBA Draft in May. Williams elected to return to Buffalo for his senior season following workouts and conversations with pro scouts, who told him he must build upon his scoring prowess.
“They love my scoring ability, they want to see me be able to make reads, make passes, get assists and make guys better. So that’s mainly what I’ve been working on this summer, trying to be a true shooting guard,” Williams said. “And like, as you see sometimes I played a point with this team. So, just expand on my game in that way. So that’s what we are talking about a lot.”
Whitesell also has high expectations for his leading scorer.
He says he wants Williams to become a more assertive rebounder to round out his game and help the team secure stops on defense. Williams, a decent rebounder in his own right, averaged 6.8 boards per game last season. But that number is down to 4.7 through seven games, and Whitesell expects big things from his star player.
“The big thing I want him to do is he’s got to rebound better,” Whitesell said. “He’s a good rebounder, but I need his rebounding numbers to go up, then he’s more involved. He’s going to get that put-back, he’s going to get an assist, he’s going to get a kick-out three. That will allow him to take advantage of his versatility instead of being one-dimensional.”
While Williams and Segu are different players with different skill sets, they express similar emotions at the end of games.
Both can be seen “mean mugging” opponents after clutch shots and wearing their emotions on their sleeves in clutch situations. However, these gestures can ride a fine line between intensity and unrestrained zeal.
Saturday’s 68-65 loss to St. Bonaventure perfectly captured the emotional differences between the two.
After Williams blocked a shot and turned it into a score on the other end late in the second half, the 6-foot-5 forward pounded his chest and scrunched his face, seemingly fueling his own fire for the remainder of the game.
On the other hand, Segu’s intensity resulted in a technical foul after he got into a shoving match with St. Bonaventure senior guard Dominick Welch with just 1:29 remaining in the game.
A compelling dynamic that must be monitored throughout the game, Whitesell says he needs to reel Segu back during games whereas he can allow Williams to remain even-keeled.
“With Rondo it’s [the message is] more, ‘Stay neutral.’ As a quarterback, you can’t be so excited until you score the touchdown. You’ve got to move on to the next play,” Whitesell said. “Nate’s more level-headed, that's why Nate bounces back a lot of times in games when things aren’t going his way. He’s hard to shut down for over 40 minutes because he’s got a good neutral mentality.”
Williams says the intensity the two bring to the game “drives the team.”
The emotion they pour out onto the court is a result of a passion for the game. When that passion can be channeled at the right time, it lights a fire within the team.
UB’s brightest stars aren’t afraid of the big moment. Their passion drives them. Even if it results in the occasional technical foul, Williams and Segu only know how to play one way.
“It’s what we work for, it’s what we dream of,” Williams said. “Me and Rondo, we’re dogs out there. We’re gonna show it in our faces, we play with a lot of passion. We really love the game and it means everything to us to perform in those big moments.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com and @DeCicco42 on Twitter
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.