By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Life figured to be different at the start of the season for the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team. The Bulls had lost six important players from last season’s NCAA squad as well as their coach (Nate Oats left for Alabama), and it figured to be a difficult task to keep the ship afloat. Even those who stuck around had new roles.
With the monthly calendar ready to flip, it’s a good time to see how UB is adjusting to life without their seniors and head coach. You’d have to say that overall, Buffalo is doing quite all right.
The Bulls defeated William & Mary, 88-77, before 3,420 at Alumni Arena on Saturday afternoon. That means UB has gone 5-2 during the first month of the nonconference schedule. Considering that one of those losses was a stunning home defeat at the hands of the Ivy League’s Dartmouth on opening night, there are few complains about how things have gone since then.
“You’d like to have that opener back, but we owned it,” new coach Jim Whitesell said. “We had to go back and work harder. We played a really good schedule in November, so I think that’s a positive. Obviously our schedule doesn’t get any easier, going on the road next week. I think one of the things we want to do is to continue to grow. When you play at Charleston, or play Harvard or William & Mary, these are good basketball teams. They will get you ready for league play. Our fans want to see that. These guys want to see good competition.
“In November, we made some good progress, especially after Game One. We’ve got to make another jump as a group in December. It will be good and challenging, and we look forward to it.”
The progress has been helped by the fact that the Bulls have a strong backcourt in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan. It’s tough to believe that many teams, especially in the Mid-American Conference or a comparable level, can match that combination. Graves finished with 24 points against the Tribe, while Jordan had 18 points and seven steals.
The Bulls finished with 15 steals on the day, which contributed to an 18-6 edge in points off the fast break.
“At first it starts with preparation,” Jordan said about the steals. “We’ve been going over their plays and watching their personnel. Ball pressure is something that we preach. Me being a leader, we go out and apply ball pressure and hopefully to get them to panic and force turnovers.”
Those two players have had to adjust their roles on the team this season. Graves and Jordan no longer are complimentary pieces. They have taken over the leadership roles, which is good news considering there are no guarantees of that happening.
“We talked a lot about this,” Whitesell said. “Davonta is very vocal, while Jayvon is more quiet. But you can be a great leader by example. That’s the big thing we talk about with Jayvon. They have to blend with the team to make the other guys better. They are both incredibly unselfish, and they’ll make the extra pass. They’ll give the ball up. That makes your team better. Antwain Johnson will get some shots. Josh Mballa will get a relocation dunk. They trust those guys. That’s the way we like to play. I’m happy with them in that category, and that’s really, really, important.”
“We have to go out and set the tone as the leaders,” Jordan said. “Coach always tells us that defense leads to offense. If you go out and play defense, you’ll get double-digit points. That’s something we harp on.”
William & Mary figured to be on the pesky side in this game. The Tribe had opened the season with three straight road wins under new coach Dane Fischer, which is tough to do under any circumstances. W&M had a good half-court offense, and a standout in Nathan Knight.
Sure enough, the Tribe hung around for 30 minutes – only trailing by five at that point in the game. Knight ended up with 30 points in 28 minutes. But W&M was working extremely hard on every possession to score, while UB was getting some easy baskets. That can slowly drain the energy of the “underdog” over the course of a full game. Sure enough, the Bulls went from a 63-58 lead to a 77-61 lead in less than four minutes. That essentially was the ballgame.
With November out of the way, it’s time to peak ahead at December – and the holiday season won’t feature any gifts at the start. UB plays at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, followed by a Dec. 8 date at DePaul. Both of those games figure to be difficult, but maybe it’s time for a good test at this point in the schedule.
“You’re going to go there, you’re going to see bigger length – like we did against UConn,” Whitesell said. “We did a lot of good things against UConn. We talked after the game that our shot selection wasn’t good enough to win that game. Defensively we played well enough to win. Can we make that adjustment? That’s the challenge when you go on the road. It’s a great challenge.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)