While Princeton’s disciplined offense is nationally renowned, it’s the Tigers’ defense that is underrated as the University at Buffalo learned in its season opener.
The Tigers limited UB to 10 of 25 shooting in the second half and forced the Bulls into 18 turnovers overall in a 57-53 loss on Saturday in Alumni Arena. The Tigers, who took the lead for good with 11:05 remaining, sent the 4,450 in Alumni home on Will Barrett’s three-pointer with 8.8 seconds left in regulation.
“I thought it was a really good opportunity for our guys to learn against a really good opponent,” UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “You can only learn so much in practice and sometimes you have to learn it in a game.”
The challenge for UB is finding additional scoring help for junior Javon McCrea, who scored 22 points, all in the second half.
The Bulls lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago, including All-America Honrable Mention Mitchell Watt, the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year. McCrea, the team’s second-leading scorer, averaged 14.7 points as a sophomore and the Bulls return only two other players – starters Jarod Oldham and Auraum Nuiriankh – who saw significant playing time.
With only one senior on the roster in guard Tony Watson II (10 points), an underclassman must play a pivotal scoring role.
The rest of the Bulls starters – Oldham, Nuiriankh, Will Regan (Nichols) and Corey Raley-Ross – combined for 16 points. Regan, playing his first game since transferring from Virginia, splashed a pair of three-pointers and pulled down five rebounds. Nuiriankh, who started 18 games a year ago, was aggressive in attacking the basket but was 0 for 5 from the field.
“We started off slow and we have to start off strong, especially on our home court,” McCrea said. “With the first game of the season, we can’t start off so stagnant. I feel like we didn’t play our basketball, we got caught up with the jitters. I don’t think we played how we really play.”
It’s unlikely help will come from the freshman class, at least not initially. Neither Stan Wier (East Aurora), Jarryn Skeete or Andre McPhail played against Princeton and Wier hasn’t practiced because of injuries.
Said Oldham, who finished with seven points, six rebounds and two blocks: “I think our execution could have been better but that’s going to come with time and getting comfortable with each other. We lost four seniors but the guys coming in now are going to pick it up quick.”
Watt’s loss might be felt more defensively and on the glass. The Tigers (1-0) started pounding the ball inside, finishing with 24 points in the paint and grabbing 13 offensive boards leading to 13 second-chance points.
“The most underrated part of what they do [is defense] because people talk about the Princeton offense so much,” Witherspoon said. “Some of it is every time someone sees a backdoor layup they say, ‘That’s Princeton style,’ but the most underrated part of what they do is defend. They’re very big on the perimeter and they do a good job of getting out on shooters and they’re big. They’re big in the paint and they’re big on the perimeter.”
Just not big enough to contain McCrea. Hindered by fouls, McCrea was scoreless in the first 20 minutes but took over the game in the second half. He’s extended his range just inside the three-point area and after shooting 55.9 percent from the line as a sophomore, he connected on 10 of 12 on Saturday.
In the game’s final 3:47, McCrea whittled down Princeton’s seven-point lead with a solo act with three blocks and four rebounds. McCrea’s block of Ian Hummer’s layup led to a three-pointer by Watson with 1:27 left and he pulled the Bulls within a point at 54-53 on a free throw. McCrea finished with eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 26 minutes.
“He was the most dominant big man, obviously in the game,” Witherspoon said.
But on Princeton’s next possession, Barrett canned the game winner on a three-pointer off a feed from Hummer, the nephew of former Buffalo Braves first-round pick John Hummer.
Next up for the Bulls is the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, where they’ll play four games in six days beginning Monday at Florida State, the team that beat St. Bonaventure in the NCAA Tournament last March.