When the University at Buffalo completed its move to Division I basketball in 1991, one of the things area hoops fans pondered was how the Bulls should be incorporated into the old Little Three. On the court, UB immediately started playing non-conference games with Canisius and Niagara. Off it, it was time for the local schools to find a new name.
Administrators at UB pushed for area fans and media to think big so the name "Big 4" was adopted and it has stuck. This year, however, it might be time to dredge out the moniker the folks at UB didn't think would be appropriate.
Welcome to the year of the Little Four.
With Canisius and St. Bonaventure again miserable, Niagara under .500 for the first time in eight years under coach Joe Mihalich and UB in free-fall after an 11-1 start, it's looking like there will only be March Sadness in Western New York this season.
UB is 16-8 heading into tonight's Alumni Arena showdown with Kent State, but just 5-7 in its last 12 games and struggling just to maintain a home game in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Still, the Bulls' record far exceeds the woeful years at Canisius (6-18) and St. Bonaventure (7-15) or the close-doesn't-count campaign at Niagara (10-14).
The old Little Three schools are all above 200 in the Ratings Percentage In dex of the 334 Division I schools. (A lower score means a stronger ranking.) Before assessing the current damage tab at each, there are some common threads to the trouble in the Big 4 this season:
Recruiting: Eleven seniors who were regular starters left the Big 4 after last season and the schools have struggled mightily to replace them. Niagara, in fact, got nothing from its four-man class as it redshirted two and two others left school for good at Christmas. The only freshman on any of the four teams averaging more than three points per game is Bona swingman A.J. Hawkins (7.0 ppg). UB's Greg Gamble and Andy Robinson and Canisius' Joe Young have been good defensively but it's extremely questionable if there are any pure scorers to be developed from this talent pool.
Point guard play: Niagara, UB and Canisius have all tried to get through the season with shooting guards masquerading as point guards and it's largely been a failure. Niagara's Lorenzo Miles, UB's Calvin Cage and Canisius' Chuck Harris are far more comfortable as shooters than distributors. Niagara has used Stanley Hodge at the point but he has struggled against defensive pressure.
Close losses: Niagara's collapse Monday night against Manhattan leaves the teams 1-6 in overtime games this year and 11-19 in games decided by six or fewer points. But UB is 6-2 in six-and-under contests -- leaving the old Little Three an ugly 5-17 in such affairs. As Niagara keeps proving night after night, if you can't protect the ball in the late going, you don't win. That comes back to point guard play.
Home isn't sweet: There's been no advantage at home this year. Canisius is 3-9 in the Koessler Center and Monday's loss to Marist set a school record for losses on campus in a season. Niagara finished 6-6 in the Gallagher Center, equaling the 1994-95 season for its most home losses on campus over the last 40 years, and an incredible five of the losses were by three or fewer points. Bona is 6-5 in the Reilly Center, but just 1-5 in Atlantic 10 play.
UB is 8-2 in Alumni Arena but one of the losses was an unpardonable no-show against 3-18 Central Michigan that could be the big checkmark against the Bulls when their National Invitation Tournament resume is looked at next month. The 71-61 triumph is Central's only MAC victory and only win against a Division I team since November.
Here's a look at where the schools stand as the regular season winds down:
The Bulls went 11-1 in nonconference play, losing only at Boston College, and were 36th in the RPI for nonleague games. Those were heady days, with fans talking about NCAA at-large berths and another sure bet for the NIT if things went awry in the MAC Tournament again. Then forward Parnell Smith suffered a severe ankle sprain during a loss at Northern Illinois and the season fell apart.
The Bulls' depth suffered, they've become too reliant on the three-point shot and they've been unable to keep up with the grueling MAC schedule, getting badly outclassed by Akron, Kent State and Miami (Ohio). If they can't beat the conference's elite, they have little shot at success in Cleveland.
Coach Reggie Witherspoon has a fine recruiting class for next year led by guard Calvin Betts, the Rochester area Player of the Year. But losing Cage and Roderick Middleton will cost the Bulls a tremendous amount of scoring and this year might temporarily be the end of UB's postseason window.
What's left to play for: The Bulls have easily the most at stake the next two weeks. They can get to 20 wins again -- an unbelievable accomplishment given their graduation losses -- and maybe sneak back into NIT contention. And if Smith somehow gets healthy, they can be a factor in Cleveland. It would be heartbreaking to see an 11-1 start and nine-game winning streak not turn into a postseason bid but a rugged remaining schedule (Kent and Akron at home, Ohio, Miami and Iona on the road) makes that a definite possibility.
Picked by most publications and their conference's preseason coaches poll to finish third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Golden Griffins have been one of the biggest mid-major disappointments in the nation. They're struggling to stay out of last place in the MAAC and appear destined to lose 20 games for the fourth time in seven years. Coach Mike MacDonald's status is in serious jeopardy with the major hang-up being what the school will do about the final two years of his contract. MacDonald backers point out that Harris, Corey Herring and Darnell Wilson will be seniors next year and the recruiting class, led by 6-foot-8 Rochester native Cory Magee, is strong so the coach should get one last chance.
In addition to not having a real point guard, the Griffs are playing without a true center. Neither senior Mike Hanley nor redshirt freshman Steve McLean has any offensive talent and the mysterious disappearance of 6-8 sophomore Rigoberto Sargeant, who averaged 19 minutes as a freshman, has left a major hole. Sargeant left the team late in the first semester and returned home to East Stroudsburg, Pa., due to undisclosed personal problems.
What's left to play for: Is this the way classy senior Kevin Downey has to end his career? Is there any way to save MacDonald's job? The Griffs almost certainly need to make the MAAC semifinals for that to happen. Even that may not be enough.
Down to just seven players due to attrition and the devastating knee injury suffered by leading scorer Charron Fisher, the Purple Eagles remain a scary team to the rest of the MAAC. They blew overtime games at home to Iona and Manhattan, the conference's top two teams, but beat Manhattan on the road and third-place Marist at home. Still, one more loss ensures this will be NU's first losing season since 1996-97, the longest stretch of winning campaigns since the days of Taps Gallagher.
This might, however, be just a slight detour on the road. The Purple Eagles lose only senior forward James Mathis and add 6-10 Northeastern transfer Benson Egemonye next year. And they've already locked up a whopping 15 home dates for next season (nine in the MAAC, St. John's, a Bracket Busters game, Buster return dates with Akron and Valparaiso, Binghamton and Duquesne). Mihalich has to find a point guard.
What's left to play for: Until someone takes it away from them, the Purple Eagles are still defending MAAC champions. Monday's loss means no first-round bye, however, and Niagara certainly can't win four games in four days with seven players. It needed to play no more than three games. Still, NU is dangerous and knows how to play in March. Mihalich has made the MAAC semifinals in six of his previous seven trips.
Coach Anthony Solomon softened the schedule and got his team five early home wins to boost its confidence. But once 5-2, Bona is just 2-13 since. Sunday's upset of Richmond ended an 11-game losing streak that tied the school record and was the fourth one of 10 or 11 games in Solomon's three seasons. The early success this year was a mirage as Bona's six nonleague victims (Robert Morris, Canisius, St. Francis, Central Connecticut, Youngstown State and Florida International) are a combined 43-90.
Since Solomon took over, the Bonnies have shown no ability to compete in the A-10. They've lost 38 of their past 41 conference games overall and are 0-21 on the road under Solomon heading into tonight's game at La Salle.
Solomon's recruiting has gotten better (transfers Tyler Relph and Paul Williams have produced while Hawkins and junior college point guard Terron Diggs would look nice elsewhere in the Big 4). His players, notably sophomores Michael Lee and Isiah Carson, seem to improve. But Solomon's substitution patterns continue to be one of the many baffling parts of his in-game management. Still, he's gone from 2-26 last year to already seven wins this year. Now he has to win league games.
The Bonnies aren't going to the A-10 tournament this year (only 12 of the 14 teams qualify) and they officially get off NCAA probation in July. Solomon's contract status is solid through 2009-10, but next year is going to be a time when some success needs to be found or the fans in Olean will continue to jump off the bandwagon.
What's left to play for: With no postseason at hand, the Bonnies are trying to simply salvage wins. Maybe they end the road slide in league Feb. 25 at Duquesne or give George Washington a scare at Olean on March 1. Something to give the fans some hope.