To many outsiders, Jim Whitesell probably doesn’t come across as a yeller.
Which is why his direct, profanity-laced coaching style may come as a surprise to people who don’t religiously follow the third-year coach and his team. Whitesell, 62, wears a permanent scowl on his face and constantly mumbles under his breath.
But he’s also a players’ coach, not afraid to crack a joke to lighten the mood or stick up for his guys when a call doesn’t go their way. He says his “tough love” is born from a desire to raise the intensity level — both in practice and during games.
“I think you have to have energy every day when you come to practice,” Whitesell said at practice last Thursday. “What you want to have is good controlled, positive energy — teaching energy. To go along with it, you want to make sure you have discipline, you have accountability. You have to hold them to a standard.”
Whitesell’s standard is for the Bulls to be “one of the hardest practicing teams in the country,” senior forward Jeenathan Williams explained last week. “You see how rowdy it gets in here, it’s real competitive — guys want to win.”
Practices are grueling exercises in endurance and controlled energy. Players dive for loose balls and set hard ball screens. They challenge each other to make tighter cuts and comfort each other when they don’t get around picks. They play tight defense and urge their teammates to communicate better.
Practice is even more important than usual this season, Whitesell says. The Omicron variant ripped through college basketball late last year, which led to game postponements, shortened benches and unusual layovers. Whitesell himself entered COVID-19 protocol in late December after testing positive for the virus.
It’s the irregularities engendered by the pandemic that have forced certain players — like Williams, senior guard Ronaldo Segu and senior forward Josh Mballa, who make up the team’s “Big 3” — to take an even greater leadership role this season.
“They’re huge,” Whitesell said, referring to his veteran players. “They’re good players. They know what to do. They’ve been through their battles. They have the experience. Much is expected of them. That doesn’t mean they’re going to play perfect. But if their mindset is the right way, it’ll carry our team in the right direction.”
UB hasn’t always been trending in the right direction this season, Whitesell admits. The Bulls were picked to win the Mid-American Conference in the Preseason Coaches Poll, but had a tough time out of the gate.
The Bulls squandered multiple opportunities in early-season losses to Michigan, Stephen F. Austin and St. Bonaventure. Two weeks after their loss to the Bonnies, the Bulls were stunned at KeyBank Center by Canisius. In late January, they dropped back-to-back games to the top two teams in the conference.
But the Bulls have recently shown signs that they may be turning things around. They are currently riding a three-game winning streak, which included a tough, 80-74 victory over a scrappy Ball State team on Saturday. The Bulls (13-8, 7-4 MAC) may not have the record they were expected to have before the season, but the needle seems to be pointing up.
Whitesell says he’s heartened by his team’s defensive strides and offensive unselfishness.
“I’m happy to see we’re playing better defense, we’re moving the ball better, we’re rebounding better — three things we’ve been talking to our guys about all year,” Whitesell said.
Helping key this turnaround is redshirt sophomore center David Skogman, a 6-10, 228 lb. big man who combines length and athleticism to shoot at incredibly high percentages at the rim. Skogman has the distinction of being the only player in the nation this season who has recorded multiple games with a perfect field goal, free throw and three-point shooting percentage.
“Skogman is great for us,” Williams said. “He’s stepped up a lot. He’s been making a lot of great plays for us. Shooting the ball really well, rebounding well. He spaces the floor for us. He’s a key factor for what we do. He’s a great pick-and-pop guy. I really love his game. He’s going to have a great career at Buffalo.”
For the Bulls to win the MAC and earn the conference’s guaranteed March Madness bid, they will need to figure out how to overcome the mental lapses and inconsistencies that have defined them for much of the season.
Whitesell circles back to those tough practices — where his piercing words can occasionally rile up a player — as being crucial for when the Bulls reach postseason play. The road to the NCAA Tournament won’t be easy: the Bulls will have to get past conference leaders Ohio (21-4, 12-2 MAC) and Toledo (20-5, 12-2 MAC) along the way.
But Williams believes the Bulls have what it takes to make it past Cleveland.
“Just staying confident in yourself,” Williams said, when asked what the team needs to do to overcome these mental challenges. “Just being level-headed, even-keeled. Mistakes happen in the game of basketball. No player is perfect. You just have to be level-headed and wipe out the negative things.”
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.