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Team preview: Buffalo Bulls

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

How best to explain how far Buffalo has come? Let's see. How about the fact Reggie Witherspoon was the head coach at Erie (N.Y.) Community College when he was summoned five games into the 1999-2000 season to take over for Tim Cohane, who was fired for alleged NCAA transgressions.

What kind of Division I program has to settle for a community college coach -- especially one with just two years of experience? One that's not very good. During Witherspoon's first three-plus seasons, the Bulls went 24-85.

What kind of Division I program decides to stick with a relatively inexperienced coach who wins just 22 percent of his games? One that has remarkable foresight.

Apparently Witherspoon picked up a thing or three about coaching while he played for Michigan coach John Beilein at Erie Community College and ex-Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers head coach Jim O'Brien at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Buffalo Bulls

Witherspoon has developed into the dean of MAC coaches -- he has been at his post four years longer than Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins, his closest pursuer -- and has built the Bulls into an upper-level mid-major program.

Look at the last four years. Buffalo averaged 19.8 wins and a 108 RPI rating. It captured three of the four postseason bids in school annals (Witherspoon also was responsible for the fourth; a 2005 NIT appearance). It produced two first-team All-MAC players last season, including league player of the year Mitchell Watt.

In a division where Akron, Kent State and Ohio have hogged the spotlight (and the NCAA tournament bids), Buffalo has developed into the most consistent team in the East. While the Bulls still seek the school's first NCAA tournament bid, they've proven they're on the right path.

Which makes the 2012-13 season so intriguing for Buffalo. After relying heavily on four graduated seniors over the last two years -- even though only two of them were starters last season -- the Bulls are in search of a new identity. But because they've developed into such a solid program, there's not as much time to spend on the process. The Bulls are winners now. There's no time and no games to waste.

"We've got to figure out who we are and how to play together," Witherspoon said.

To accelerate the process, the Bulls took a six-day trip to Montreal and Ottawa (billed as the "Cross-Border Battle") in August. For those who believe in omens, Buffalo won its lone MAC East division title after making the same trip in August 2008. This time around, the Bulls went 3-1 with their lone loss to perennial national champion Carleton University.

"This was great for our entire team," said Witherspoon, who has just two seniors this year. "We played a lot of people. It was a learning experience."

You'd think Witherspoon didn't need to learn much about 6-7, 250-pound junior Javon McCrea (14.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg), who earned first-team All-MAC acclaim from the league's head coaches last year. But McCrea no longer has the graduated Watt (16.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Titus Robinson (7.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) to guide him in the pivot.

"He's going to have to be more assertive with the way that he does things," Witherspoon said. "There's no one left for him to defer to, though obviously he didn't defer that much because he was first-team all-conference."

McCrea led the Bulls in scoring and rebounding on the Montreal trip. He opened with a 22-point, nine-rebound performance, delivered 11 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots against Carleton and wrapped up the tour with a 19-point, 16-rebound effort.

McCrea's new partner in the frontcourt might be Virginia transfer Will Regan, a 6-8, 230-pound sophomore. The two-time Buffalo News player of the year performed consistently in Canada with three double-figure performances. He also displayed an ability to stretch the floor by hitting 2 of 3 3-pointers in the tour finale. "He runs the floor hard," Witherspoon said. "He has good hands and he finishes well with either hand around the basket."

Junior center Cameron Downing (2.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg) and sophomore power forward Xavier Ford (1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg) are the other serious candidates to replace Watt and Robinson. Downing, the team's biggest player at 6-9 and 260 pounds, averaged 5.6 minutes in 22 games last year while the 6-7 Ford averaged 4.9 minutes in 16 appearances.

"Xavier and Cameron played in some games last year where they were quality minutes," Witherspoon said. "They'd play in the first half for short stretches. The next step is playing every game for longer stretches."

Ford came to Buffalo with huge credentials from Harrison High School in Colorado Springs, but obviously he didn't get to play as much as desired. "I don't know anybody who's handled that transition better," Witherspoon said. "He was always encouraging, always completely into the games. I think he handled that great."

Just as McCrea needs to be the clear leader of the big men, 6-3 junior point guard Jarod Oldham (4.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg) needs to be the clear leader in the backcourt. This marks the first time in five seasons Buffalo has been able to start the same guy at point guard in consecutive years. While he set the school record for assists by a sophomore (183), he shot just 31 percent from the field and 24 percent on 3-pointers.

"He's still growing and learning," Witherspoon said. "I think he defends very well and he's very athletic. The thing he has worked on the most is his shooting. We gave him a workout program where he probably got at least 1,000 shots per day. He's really improved. Now it's just a matter of getting comfortable with it."

Six-foot-3 junior Corey Raley-Ross (2.1 ppg), who played just 85 minutes spread over 17 games last sea-son, probably gets first call at shooting guard. "He's at the point where he needs some success," Witherspoon said. "He's still as athletic as ever and he has done things in practice, but he hasn't done it a lot in games."

Senior Tony Watson (6.1 ppg), who tossed in 40 3-pointers last year, serves as the Bulls' security blanket at both guard spots. He's perhaps the team's best shooter (.374 3PT, .919 FT) and could start at shooting guard, but Witherspoon likes the idea of having a strong scorer coming off the bench. "It's more difficult than starting," Witherspoon said. "Tony knows how to put out the fire."

Freshmen Jarryn Skeete and Stan Weir are the next wave in Buffalo's backcourt. Skeete, a 6-3 Ontario native, spent his senior year at Wasatch Academy in Utah and scored 37 points in the 2011 Class 1A state title game. He played at Bridgton (Maine) Academy last season.

"We played him as much as we could in Montreal," Witherspoon said. "He's not as athletic [as Oldham], but he's a better shooter than Jarod when Jarod came here."

The 6-3 Weir, voted the All-Western New York player of the year by the Buffalo News, averaged 25.3 points last season for East Aurora High School despite dealing with knee problems. He underwent surgery on both knees in March and Witherspoon wants him to take his time and heal correctly. "We're taking his rehab slow," he said. "He's one of those overachiever types who wants to come back sooner."

The X-factor on this squad could be junior swingman Auraum Nuiriankh (3.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg). The 6-6, 200-pound Nuiriankh joined the starting lineup midway through last season -- at the behest of then-senior Dave Barnett, who went from starter to sixth man in the switch -- but he still averaged just 13 minutes per game. But during the Canada trip, Nuiriankh twice led the Bulls in scoring. He drilled 4 of 6 3-point attempts against Carleton.

"It's our hope he can make another jump," Witherspoon said. "Hopefully he's seasoned enough to be asser-tive. He prides himself on defense, but he can shoot it."

Sophomore Raphell Thomas-Edwards (0.6 ppg), who appeared in just eight games last year, stacks up as Nuiriankh's backup. The 6-6, 240-pound Leicester, England native could be one of the team's most improved players.

"He's a gym rat," Witherspoon said. "He stayed here all summer getting better every day. He's a big, thick guy, but very quick. He has good feet and a low center of gravity."

Andre McPhail, a 6-7, 240-pound freshman, signed with Buffalo in May. The power forward from Antioch, Calif., averaged 17.7 points and 15.7 rebounds for Deer Valley High School before splitting his post-graduate season between LaJolla Prep and Stoneridge Prep. "He loves to rebound and loves to run the floor," With-erspoon said. "That makes him a great fit for us."

With one scholarship open, Witherspoon bestowed it on senior guard Richie Sebuharara (0.0 ppg in seven games). He arrived at Buffalo as a triple jumper but walked on to the basketball team before the 2010-11 season.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: C+

BENCH/DEPTH: C+

FRONTCOURT: B+

INTANGIBLES: B

After losing four crucial pieces to their back-to-back 20-win teams, the Bulls need several players to fill the void. Regan should solidify the frontcourt, but Buffalo needs Nuiriankh and/or Raley-Ross to develop into an upper-echelon MAC player in order to compete in the East. "I think our guys are coming along well," Witherspoon said. "We need to be able to sustain concentration for longer periods of time."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.