Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 335 Division I teams. To order the complete 2010-11 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-877-807-4857.
(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Reggie Witherspoon gave up three weeks of his summer vacation to help coach the USA Basketball U18 team that hosted the World Championships in San Antonio. He ate familiar food, enjoyed working with Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and finished with a gold medal for his efforts.
"It was a great experience," Witherspoon said. "Every day, it was like being at a coaching clinic."
Witherspoon's busman's holiday from June 14 to July 1 probably served as relevant experience for Buffalo this year. Obviously, the U18 national team was built around younger players -- six incoming college freshmen served as the "veterans" on the roster.
The Bulls, meanwhile, said goodbye to six seniors after last season. To replace those veterans, including the team's top five scorers, Witherspoon and his staff recruited one freshman for each position on the floor. How the coaches bring along those freshmen will have a large impact on Buffalo's chances to stay among the MAC East's upper crust.
"They could all end up playing a lot," Witherspoon said. "They're all very capable. What we got is what we kind of thought: One guy would show a lot of promise one day [in individual workouts], then the next day another guy would show promise."
But all of this talk about freshmen sidesteps the basic premise of Buffalo's program in recent years: Upperclassmen serving as the leaders and primary producers.
While first-team All-MAC guard Rodney Pierce (18.4 ppg), point guard John Boyer (the nation's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio), glue guy Calvin Betts (10.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and shooter Sean Smiley (52 three-pointers) have moved along, the Bulls still could field a starting lineup of seniors and juniors.
Witherspoon planned ahead by redshirting senior point guard Byron Mulkey (322 career points, 124 career assists) last season. "We didn't want he and Boyer to graduate at the same time," Witherspoon said. It's a testament to the 6-0, 175-pound Mulkey's leadership skills that his teammates voted him to be a team captain last year even though he wasn't going to play.
This figures to be his third season as a captain, but his first as a full-time starter. He posted single-game highs of 21 points and 14 assists in MAC games as a true freshman, but hasn't approached those numbers since. He sounds hungry to get back to that level. "We've just got to slow him down a little offensively," Witherspoon said. "We've got him settled down some. He's a hard-working kid his teammates and coaches trust."
You can find Buffalo's two returning starters holding down the frontcourt. Junior power forward Titus Robinson (5.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and junior center Mitchell Watt (5.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are more complementary than interchangeable.
"Titus is a little better facing the basket and Mitch is better with his back to the basket," Witherspoon said. "Having said that, both of them can do the other thing as well."
The 6-7, 205-pound Robinson, who has 53 career starts to his credit, shot 50 percent from the field and 71 percent from the free-throw line last year. "He improved in areas where the stat sheet may not show that," Witherspoon said. "Now he's more comfortable with what he's being asked to do. He has improved each year defensively. He's capable of scoring a little more this year -- and rebounding more, too."
The 6-9, 210-pound Watt, who has made 55 career starts, might have provided a hint of his future prowess when he delivered career-highs of 17 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in Buffalo's regular-season finale against Miami (Ohio). "He will score more for us this year," Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon hopes he can count on two more juniors -- swingman Dave Barnett (2.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and shooter Zach Filzen (2.9 ppg) -- to claim the starting spots on the wings.
The 6-5, 200-pound Barnett shot just 40 percent from the floor and 20 percent at the free-throw line during his limited time last season, but Witherspoon sees a guy who's ready to explode. It's hard not to think big when you see a guy with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap.
"He's starting to believe in himself a little bit," Witherspoon said. "We've told him what he's capable of, and he's starting to maybe believe it himself. He definitely has a chance to step into some [bigger] things -- and we need him to do that."
The 6-3, 180-pound Filzen transferred from Northern Arizona with a reputation as a big-time shooter, but he hit just 15 of his 45 three-point attempts in limited action. "He was at a position where the top four guys were seniors last year," Witherspoon said. "He should come to the front right now. He moves extremely well without the ball. He's got size and toughness."
Senior Jawaan Alston (4.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who's 6-8 and 225 pounds, and 6-7, 230-pound sophomore Mike Clifford (1.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg) are the Bulls' lone frontcourt reserves with experience. Alston served as the team's eighth man last season, while Clifford logged a grand total of 25 minutes.
"Jawaan is certainly a very capable athlete for us," Witherspoon said. "He's a very good defender and runs the floor very well. Mike took baby steps last year because he had seniors and juniors and sophomores ahead of him. He learned and got through some things. He's understanding things better."
Tony Watson II (0.8 ppg, 0.6 apg), a 6-2 sophomore, stacks up as Mulkey's leading competition at the point. Watson put up ridiculous numbers as a Florida prep, but saw just 76 minutes of play last year behind Boyer. While that might sound like a less-than-beneficial freshman year, Witherspoon believes Watson benefited from watching Boyer be stingy with the turnovers (one every 23.5 minutes played) despite the Bulls' up-tempo style. "First of all, he has a clearer grasp of how we play," Witherspoon said. "Now he realizes how hard you have to work at it -- and he's got a terrific work ethic."
With just four returnees for the three perimeter spots in Buffalo's rotation, there's lot of room for the Bulls' rookies to find a place on the floor. As it turned out, Buffalo acquired three perimeter players during the April signing period -- and Witherspoon believes their shared traits (long arms and athleticism) give each of them the ability to become terrific defenders.
Considered Buffalo ranked among the nation's worst teams in three-point defense (.388) and effective field-goal defense (.519), it's important to improve on that end of the floor.
Point guard Jarod Oldham (6-3, 185) hails from the same Illinois high school (Decatur Eisenhower) as Purdue starting point guard Lewis Jackson. He averaged 18.6 points and 7.2 rebounds during his senior year and Buffalo nabbed him because it stuck with Oldham while he battled to qualify academically. "He's tough. Hard-nosed," Witherspoon said. "He's got good size for a point guard and a big heart."
If shooting guard Corey Raley-Ross (6-3, 185) has a name with a familiar ring, it's because his brother, Brandis, just wrapped up a solid career at South Carolina. The younger Raley-Ross averaged 20.3 points for Harding High in Charlotte, N.C. "He's very athletic," Witherspoon said. "Got a lot of potential. He shoots it well and can get to the basket."
Swingman Auraum Nuiriankh (6-5, 195) rounds out the youthful perimeter trio. The Baltimore native contributed 18 points and eight rebounds per game at Charis (N.C.) Prep. "He's making the transition from being a post in high school to being a perimeter player for us," Witherspoon said. "He's a kid who won't back down."
Buffalo's pair of frontcourt recruits signed with the program in November, then posted some absurd senior-year numbers. Javon McCrea (6-7, 248) averaged 22.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 8.0 blocks per game at Newark (N.Y.) High School to earn first-team all-state honors. He led Newark to the Class A state title game. "He has a 7-foot-2 and-a-half wingspan," Witherspoon said.
"His body is just really, really rare. He has both timing and leaping ability."
Tulsa native Cameron Downing (6-9, 240) led his Memorial High School team to the Oklahoma Class 5A state title game. He earned the Tulsa World's state player of the year award after averaging 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 72 percent from the field for the year. "He's a big-body kid," Witherspoon said. "We felt we needed someone who was more of a center. Once we get him toned up a little bit, he'll be able to do a lot of things."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Judging by the last two seasons' RPI numbers, Witherspoon has positioned the program just outside the nation's Top 100. That's no small feat at Buffalo, which has yet to make its NCAA Tournament debut, but this season will test whether the Bulls have staying power.
If the four-man junior class can't carry the scoring load, the freshmen might have to make their presence felt earlier than expected.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2010-11 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-877-807-4857.