071129 UB-Tulane hoops2

071129 UB-Tulane hoops2 - sports dan cappellazzo/staff photographer Amherst, N.Y. - University at Buffalo� Byron Mulkey moves up court in late first half action against Tulane at Alumni Arena.

Don’t readily assume the Buffalo Bulls recent surge is tied to coach Reggie Witherspoon settling on a consistent rotation.

UB has put forth its four strongest performances of conference play since Witherspoon shortened his bench and tweaked the starting lineup prior to the Jan. 28 loss to Western Michigan.

The biggest change has been Niagara-Wheatfield graduate Byron Mulkey returning to the starting point guard spot he claimed at the end of last season. Incidentally, it was prior to last season’s game at Western Michigan that Witherspoon decided Mulkey, then a walk-on, wouldn’t be redshirting anymore.

The Bulls offensive production has spiked in the last four games, starting with a pair of double-overtime losses during which the Bulls averaged 93 points, and carrying over to their modest two-game win streak.

Witherspoon said Mulkey’s presence in the starting lineup has allowed the Bulls to be more aggressive early in the game.

Starting in the backcourt alongside Mulkey have been juniors Andy Robinson, the reigning Mid-American Conference East player of the week, and Greg Gamble (Niagara Falls). Sean Smiley is bringing his sweet shooting stroke off the bench, and Rodney Pierce has been backing up Mulkey at the point, sometimes getting crunch time minutes.

“It gives Rodney a chance to kind of see the game and how certain guys are playing,” Witherspoon said. “He can come in and be a lot less cautious.”

In the frontcourt, freshman Jawaan Alston has started seven games in a row, alongside either Brian Addison or Kambi Laleye, who just returned from a stress fracture in his foot. But agile forwards Calvin Betts and Max Boudreau usually enter the game together and receive the majority of playing time.

For much of the season, Witherspoon was playing as many as 13 games, in several different combinations.

A season-ending knee injury to center Vadim Fedotov took him out of the rotation, and 7-footer Andrew Atman, might miss the rest of the season with a torn plantar fascia. Fedotov was the Bulls biggest body and Atman is the team’s lone senior, but UB seems to be better off at the moment without its two slowest forwards.

Those injuries have also persuaded Witherspoon, who is loyal to his older players, to provide Alston with some game experience from which he can develop.

“You hate to go through some of the things that we went through,” Witherspoon said. “But at the same time, these guys are on the floor, and they’re getting a chance to play. And there are some other guys in the league that are sophomores that can’t get on the floor because they have seniors in front of them.”

Witherspoon has often mentioned the 2002-03 team that limped to a 2-16 MAC record. Turner Battle, who was a sophomore that season, missed the final nine with a finger injury, opening up minutes for freshmen Calvin Cage and Roderick Middleton.

“So we had a game the next year when Turner went out with four fouls,” Witherspoon recalled. “And those guys (Cage and Middleton) had enough experience that they could come in and play confident.”

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The Bulls host Ball State tonight, the last place team in the MAC West division.

The Cardinals are looking to avoid being swept by their East counterparts. Their losing ways haven’t kept guard Peyton Stovall from being recognized for his accomplishments on and off the court.

Stovall, who last month was among five finalists for the Coach John Wooden Citizenship Cup, has also been named a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, presented to a senior student-athlete in eight different Division I sports.

“This is an amazing honor for Peyton Stovall,” Ball State coach Billy Taylor said in a news release. “We all continue to be impressed and proud of the student, the athlete and the person Peyton is.”

Stovall is the first MAC player to be named a finalist for the CLASS Award.

•••

Surgery to repair a torn knee ligament has sidelined Akron’s leading scorer and rebounder Jeremiah Wood, and might have ended the fifth-year senior’s career. Wood, a preseason all-MAC pick, is hoping he can return for the MAC Tournament in mid-March, but that would require a remarkable rehabilitation.

•••

The MAC will be reepresented three times on ESPN2 on Bracket Buster Saturday next week. Akron will meet Virginia Commonwealth at 11 a.m. on ESPN2, Ohio will play George Mason at 1 p.m. on ESPU, and Kent State will head No. 21 St. Mary’s for an 11:59 p.m. start on ESPN2.

Miami, which visits Buffalo on Saturday, will take on Valparaiso at 6 p.m. on ESPN Classic.

Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258 or bronsteinj@gnnewspaper.com.