School: University at Buffalo
Coach: Reggie Witherspoon
2011-12 Record: 20-11, 12-4
Gone from last year’s 20-win team are four seniors who accounted for 41 points and 19 rebounds per game and a MAC Player of the Year award. Toss in a 31-game schedule with just 13 of those at home (it could rise to 14), a game at No. 25 Florida State and other non-conference road trips to Milwaukee, Washington State and Tulsa on top of the always taxing MAC schedule and 2012-13 has “growth season” written all over it.
“I do hope that this experience helps us grow, because we are going to some hostile places against some good teams, and even some teams we’re bringing in, they’re good teams,” said coach Reggie Witherspoon. “Hopefully it will help us speed that development a little bit because it’s a challenging road.”
This isn’t an altogether bad time for a transitional phase. MAC rival Ohio brings back almost everybody (minus its coach) from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team and Akron remains strong behind an ample returning cast that includes 7-footer Zeke Marshall. A preseason poll picked the pair 1-2 in the East, and there are no serious challengers in the West, not with division favorite Toledo on probation for academic shortcomings.
“You’re right, Ohio brings back everybody,” Witherspoon said. “Akron brings back virtually everybody. There are going to be some challenges and our guys are looking forward to it and I am too.”
The Bulls had experience on their side with last season’s senior array of Mitchell Watt, Titus Robinson, Zach Filzen and Dave Barnett. This year’s club includes just two seniors, Tony Watson and Richie Sebuharara, and only Watson’s had substantial playing time.
Keys to success
The saddle left behind by MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt goes onto the back of junior forward Javon McCrea. He averaged 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in earning a spot on the all-MAC first team last year.
“We need him to be more assertive,” Witherspoon said. “Javon’s a great teammate. And we still want him to be a great teammate. He loves to share, we want him to keep sharing. What we don’t want him to do is to defer, because really guys are going to be deferring to him in some respects.”
McCrea has to shoulder the burden up front while Witherspoon sorts through a front-line rotation that includes junior Cameron Downing and sophomores Will Regan (Nichols/Virginia) and Xavier Ford.
Jarod Oldham returns off a solid sophomore season at point guard but he has to score some to keep teams honest. Senior Tony Watson and junior Corey Raley-Ross look to fill the long-range scoring void while junior Auraum Nuiriankh returns in the No. 3 role he took over last year. Nuiriankh led the Bulls in scoring on their summer Canada trip.
Watson is expected back in full health after offseason foot surgery.
There’s no easing into the schedule. The Bulls open at home with Princeton then play at No. 25 Florida State in the first of four NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Classic games. Home non-conference highlights include a Nov. 28 rematch of last year’s OT loss at Temple and a Dec. 8 visit by Niagara.
Within the MAC the heavy homecourt lifting comes late. Toledo and POY candidate Rian Peterson visit Feb. 13. Akron and Ohio come in back to back, on March 2 and 5.
Graduation losses and the toughest schedule in recent memory make a third straight 20-win season a long shot. The Bulls were picked to finish fourth in the MAC preseason poll, which sounds about right. They have enough pieces to loom dangerous come MAC Tournament time.