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The Central Michigan basketball program was in tatters last season. It won five of 27 regular-season games, just two of 18 in the Mid-American Conference.

"We beat them by 13," said University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, driving home the point at his own expense.

The Chippewas had lost eight straight heading into the MAC Tournament. They drew Akron, an Eastern Division power, in the first round and won by two. They met up with Marshall, already assured a 20-win season, in the second round and lost by two.

The aftereffects? Using the same core group of players, Central Michigan is 17-4 this season, 11-1 in the conference and the favorite to represent the MAC in the NCAA Tournament. It's a program that has become a source of inspiration for Witherspoon as he weaves his way through his first full season as the Bulls head coach with his sense of humor intact and his sense of purpose undiminished.

Witherspoon has needed both. His Bulls are 3-19, 1-12, after breaking a 13-game losing streak with Monday night's victory over Eastern Michigan. They haven't won a conference road game in almost three years, or a road game of any sort during Witherspoon's tenure.

The ability to smile in the face of adversity has been Witherspoon's psychological safety net. UB started individual workouts and team practice three weeks late, sanctions that were self-imposed as it awaits the results of a school-initiated NCAA investigation stemming from the tenure of previous coach Tim Cohane. The Bulls also reduced their scholarship total by one to 12 and have only one assistant coach on the road recruiting, one less than is allowed.

Witherspoon said opposing coaches were incredulous when, at the MAC's preseason media day in October, they were informed the Bulls had yet to begin practice.

"Everybody knows you're taking over a program that's in its third year in the league and has had trouble winning when they've started practice on time," Witherspoon said. "And now they're looking at me like I have three heads; they couldn't believe it."

"Those things were intended to have impact on our program, and I don't think there is any question they have," Athletic Director Bob Arkeilpane said. "Our hope is when the dust settles and the NCAA looks at what we've done . . . we don't face any more consequences."

The Bulls expect the results of the investigation will be announced within one month.

The scholarship the Bulls surrendered for this season has had more of an impact than they could have imagined. Two of the 12 scholarships went to players - redshirt Joe Veal and transfer Darcel Williams - who are sitting out the season. Another scholarship player, Maliso Libomi, returned to France. A fourth, Brian Kennedy, lacked the grades to pass admissions.

So even during the best of times Witherspoon had no more than eight scholarship players at his call. The number was reduced to six when injuries knocked junior forward Clement Smith and junior guard Gabe Cagwin out of uniform. The Bulls dressed only eight players - two of them walk-ons - in a 62-60 loss to Canisius on Feb. 6, a game in which they trailed by 19 at the half.

"You're going to drive yourself crazy," Witherspoon said, "if you don't stick to the realization you got to try to get the most out of what you have."

The "victories" Witherspoon cherishes most have been losses. The Bulls were routinely blown out of games last season and rarely were competitive on the road. This season, they lost in overtime at Marshall and frittered away a 19-point second-half lead at Akron, a one-point defeat. They were even at Central Michigan with two minutes left before losing by nine.

After the loss at Akron, 8-year-old Lydia Witherspoon woke up her sister Rachel, 6, to tell her the result.

"Daddy's team lost by one," Lydia said.

"That's good," Rachel responded.

"Good?" Lydia asked.

"They're getting closer."

Witherspoon chuckled as he told the story.

"Boy, I hope everyone sees it that clearly," he said. "It's like having a piano you're trying to get up the steps. It's going to take us some time and the load is heavy. But we'll get it up the steps. That game at Akron, you come out of it really disappointed you lost because you know you could have won. But at the same time you're moving in the right direction."

The Bulls are 6-39 since Witherspoon replaced Cohane following highly successful stints at Sweet Home High School and Erie Community College. They have six games remaining, all against tough conference foes. They'll probably fall short of last year's victory total of five.

"With what we've gone through the last couple of years, quite frankly I didn't know what to expect," Arkeilpane said. "Knowing what's happened with this program unlike anybody else, while I'm disappointed for the the kids, Reggie and the fans, I certainly understand it."

Arkeilpane remains committed to Witherspoon. He hired him on an interim basis to replace Cohane. He gave him a five-year contract after conducting a coaching search at the end of last season.

"We have a great person, one of the highest character, and a great role model," Arkeilpane said. "We're staying the course."

The Bulls know they will lose Traditional High graduate Damien Foster after this season. They could have everyone else back. Robert Brown, a 6-foot-4 junior, has emerged as a force. The team is especially high on Veal, a 6-9 forward with the explosive quickness that often distinguishes big men in the MAC. Their lone recruit to this point, 6-2 Turner Battle out of North Carolina, is "the steal of the millennium," according to scouting maven Bob Gibbons. "Turner Battle could have played for an ACC school," Gibbons says.

Witherspoon isn't saying the Bulls will be the next Central Michigan. But he'd like to think that, record notwithstanding, they're on the fast track to .500.

"We could be in the neighborhood next season, there's no question about that," Witherspoon said. "We got to do some things better and if we do we can win. That should be scarier for the opponent than it is for us."

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