What's up: With five returning starters, including Mid-American Conference Player of the Year candidate Turner Battle, the Bulls will challenge Toledo, Miami and Eastern Michigan for their first MAC championship.
It starts with the inside-outside duo of Battle and sophomore Yassin Idbihi. Battle led the Bulls in scoring, assists and steals and is regarded as the league's top playmaker. A good senior year will increase his stock with NBA scouts, who liken his game to that of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Eric Snow. Idbihi seemed to improve with each game last season and led the Bulls in rebounding while finishing behind Battle in scoring. He added 25 pounds of muscle, mostly in his lower body, and will be difficult to push out of the post. Everyone else fills in the blanks nicely.
Senior swingman Daniel Gilbert is a three-year starter who guards all over the floor. Junior Mario Jordan can play both frontcourt positions, and junior Roderick Middleton does the same in the backcourt. Few teams in the MAC can bring a scoring and shot-blocking force off the bench as UB can with senior Mark Bortz. Senior Jason Bird and junior Calvin Cage, who improved immensely over the last half of the season, provide long-range shooting. Freshman Wallace Hall from Detroit is another backcourt option.
Like Noah, coach Reggie Witherspoon has two of everything, but he wishes the preseason predictions would, well, wash away. Last season, Northern Illinois was the MAC favorite, but the Huskies limped in at 10-20.
"We have to be about preparation," Witherspoon said. "Since we've been in the conference, people have predicted things and rarely are the predictions accurate."
What's down: Another low-post presence who can defend and score would be nice. That weakness was exposed last season by Toledo in the conference tournament. Sophomore Brian Andre, a good passer out of the high post, could develop into that player but has limited experience. Redshirt freshman Andrew Atman is a 7-footer with the willow build of a small forward, and 6-8 freshman Christian Schmidt is inexperienced as well. Health is an issue as Jordan, Middleton, Bird and Battle have missed preseason time because of injuries.
Also, the Bulls have something new to deal with: expectations. How will they react when an opponent's student section rushes the floor after beating UB? Life is so much easier being the huntee.
"When we get to that point, it might not be all that bad," Witherspoon said. "But I don't think we snuck up on people the last five games of last season."
Outlook: People are starting to take notice of UB's deep and athletic roster. The Bulls were the lead college basketball story recently on ESPN.com, and Cage was named to the magazine's All-World B. Free team (for having one college basketball's coolest names). There has never been this much excitement for basketball in Amherst, and this could potentially be the finest team in school history.
That said, the Bulls will have a difficult time cracking the MAC power block. Toledo beat UB like a drum in last year's MAC tournament and returns everyone. The league's best player is Rockets guard Keith Triplett, a fearless scorer and lockdown defender. If UB can lunge past the Rockets, an NCAA Tournament berth awaits. If not, it's the NIT, which would be considered a success taking into account UB won just five games two years ago. It's not complicated to project: The Bulls are locks for a 20-win season.