(Denzel Gregg Photo credit: GoBonnies.com)
By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
In the months leading up to the 2015-16 college basketball season, not much was expected out of the University of Buffalo Bulls.
The Bulls were Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) tournament champions last season, earning them a trip to the NCAA Tournament, but there were a litany of changes over the offseason. In April, head coach Bobby Hurley’s success at the program earned him a five-year contract at Arizona State, with a starting salary of $1.2 million a year. In June, three players were caught stealing $650 from a dorm room belonging to two football players, resulting in reigning MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss being kicked off the team (the other two players, Mory Diane and Raheem Johnson, are still playing).
The tumultuous summer led to the Bulls being picked fourth in the MAC’s East Division. They were ranked 126th by CBS Sports, who called it a “comedown year (to say the least) for Buffalo.”
As Bona fans know, however, preseason rankings quickly prove to be obsolete. While they haven’t played the toughest opponents yet, the Bulls have started out 4-2 and are aiming to extend their win streak to four when they host Bona on Wednesday night at Alumni Arena.
Instead of last season, where Moss scored almost 25 percent of the Bulls’ points, Buffalo has started this season with a balanced attacked. Five players (Lamonte Bearden, Blake Hamilton, Rodell Wigginton, Willie Conner and C.J. Massinburg) are averaging double-digit points through the first six games of the season, and Jarryn Skeete is averaging 9.8.
The Bulls are shooting at a meager 38.4 percent mark thus far, but have averaged 77.2 points a game. This has a lot to do with their ability to attack the basket and draw fouls; they’ve attempted 27 foul shots a game and made just under 20 a contest.
Bonaventure junior forward Denzel Gregg noticed similarities between UB and the Canisius team SBU defeated last week.
“They play kind of the same way Canisius does,” Gregg said. “So just defending the ball screen, which is something we’ve been working on more and more. We’re just learning to play with each other, and I think a lot of things can happen for us; we’re playing well in practice right now.”
If the Bulls are similar to the Golden Griffins, then the brown and white must defend like they did against Canisius if they are to win the second Big Four showdown of the year. The Bonnies held the Griffins under 40 in each half in that game, something they failed to do against Hofstra, Loyola and Syracuse.
The Bonnies haven’t had many issues on offense in the early going, averaging about 77 points a contest. Gregg acknowledged that the defensive side of the ball is still the area that needs improvement.
“Offense hasn’t really been a struggle for us,” he said. “I think we’re always going to be able to score the ball; if it’s not broken don’t fix it. We’ve just got to get better defensively; I’m not really worried about the offensive side.”
Another aspect of the defense that has been an adjustment has been the increase in fouls. With the new NCAA emphasis on referees calling more fouls for hand contact, there have been 20 fouls called a game so far this year as opposed to 18 last season. The Bonnies are fouling more than average, with 22 personal fouls a contest, and three have already fouled out in a game this season: guards Jaylen Adams and Nelson Kaputo and forward Denzel Gregg.
Against a Bulls team that loves to attack and get to the line, the Bonnies have to make sure to play defense with their feet, not with their hands. With eight healthy and eligible scholarship players, any foul trouble presents an issue.
“I think we’ve just got to guard with our hands off, and it’s kind of adjusting to the refs,” said Gregg. “All refs are different, and (there are) a lot of new rules so people are interpreting the rules differently. Some places you play there’ll be more touching fouls than other places, so it’s just adjusting.”
On the road, team defense becomes even more important, communication more vital. Players like Woods and Kaputo are adjusting to playing college defense, and the entire team is still figuring each other out.
“We’re a work in progress, trying to learn the different slides and the pack-line defense that we play,” Schmidt said. “And we’ve played some good offensive teams.
“You contest threes, but you’ve got to try to own the paint. That’s what we have to continually work at; sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t. We have to be more consistent.”
The Bonnies enter this game winners of the last five games against Big Four rivals UB, Canisius and Niagara. There is no Big 4 Classic this season, and the Big Four weekly awards have been discontinued, but the rivalries are still just as fierce as in years past.
Students and alumni may circle these games on their calendars (UB is trying for a blackout tonight, with the hashtag #BlackoutBona making the rounds on social media this week), but the teams see it as another opportunity to win.
“You always want to be the best in any group that anybody puts you in- I want to be the best in the A-10, I want to be the best in New York, I want to be the best in the Big Four,” Gregg said.
“It makes a difference, but I always want to win every game; it’s all the same to me.”