By Brandon Koch
Byron Mulkey is back from Morocco, continuing his education and, when his schedule permits, running Reggie Witherspoon’s motion offense like a vested veteran. Greg Gamble may pay a visit, John Boyer too. And on occasion, Turner Battle takes off his coaching whistle and puts in a clinic.
But when the new lights are turned all the way up at Alumni Arena and the Buffalo Bulls have to play a real basketball game, they won’t have a senior point guard leading the way for the first time in any of their careers.
Leadership will have to come from different positions. The Bulls are stocked with seniors following a season where UB went 20-14. Big man Mitchell Watt, high-flying forward Titus Robinson, hard-nosed swingman Dave Barnett and sharpshooter Zach Filzen were all starters last season. Watt and Robinson have been in the rotation since they were freshman. All, however, have deferred to their elders in seasons past.
“Those four guys,” Witherspoon said, “have to collectively raise their level of leadership.”
As much as the Bulls will miss Mulkey at the point, Witherspoon said the other departed senior, backup forward Jawaan Alston, also left a void.
“The really big thing for the two post guys is that Jawaan had a real silent way of contributing,” Witherspoon said. “He’d go in and put no pressure on himself to score and just focus on defense and rebounding. It allowed (Watt and Robinson) to not have to think much about what they did. They could just go out and play. Now some of that loose freedom has to turn into concentration.”
Watt, who averaged 8.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks last season, turned down a chance to join Filzen and Robinson on an Athletes in Action tour of China, so he could stay on campus on focus on gaining strength. The result was 25 pounds of added muscle and a more explosive, confident player.
“Over the years, I feel skill-wise, I’ve been where I want to be, but I wasn’t able to translate or use it on the court because my stamina wasn’t up or my strength wasn’t there,” Watt said.
Robinson struggled to produce with freshman sensation Javon McCrea eating into his minutes last year. McCrea trained with U.S.A Basketball over the summer, and was a preseason all-Mid-American Conference selection. After averaging 11.8 points on 63 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds in just 21 minutes last year, some wonder if McCrea is on the verge of being the best player in the MAC. Witherspoon is hesitant to support that theory.
“I’m not saying he’s not or he can’t be,” Witherspoon said. “But there’s a lot of days he’s not even the best player in practice. To say he’s automatically going to make the next jump is a big reach. In order for things to happen, he can’t just pick up where he left off. He has to be a lot better, because there is going to be a lot more attention on him from opponents.
Taking Alston’s spot in the rotation will be freshman forward Xavier Ford, a third-team Parade All-American from Colorado who has looked confident competing with the older forwards in practice.
The post players can only do so much, however, without steady point guard play. Sophomore Jarod Oldham will start tonight’s season opener against Saint Peter’s, and is likely to get all the minutes he can handle for the time being. The Bulls’ other scholarship point guard, Tony Watson III, had arthroscopic knee surgery last week and will miss at least the first two games. Oldham’s backup is Richie Sebuharara, a walk-on who originally came to UB to run track.
One thing that will help Oldham, a long-armed athlete who emerged as a solid contributor off the bench late last year, is that the Bulls’ offensive system doesn’t ask the point guard to make every play.
“Our greatest asset is moving the ball,” Barnett said. “Our ball movement, along with our aggressive post play, is something that we really need in order to do what we can do offensively.”
“Dave and Zach have to be better at handling the ball, better at making decisions, better at communicating,” Witherspoon said. “The big thing for them is there was a certain level of relaxed intensity from having Byron there. Now they have to bring that intensity to Jarod Oldham, (and sophomore shooting guards) Corey Raley-Ross and Auraum Nuiriankh.”
With the right amount of leadership, concentration and intensity from the seniors, UB could have a big year.
“We know we’re probably one of the more talented teams Buffalo has ever had,” Watt said. “I say that confidently, because alumni that play here and are around the team tell us we’re very talented. We just have to apply it.”