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UB, Kent State have much at stake tonight

The Mid-American Conference standings are pasted in the University at Buffalo locker room, inspected as closely as a detective dusting for fingerprints.

It shows that the Bulls have some work to do if they want to secure a home game for next month's MAC Tournament. Heading into tonight's crucial matchup against Kent State (17-7, 11-2), the Bulls are the No. 7 seed. The top four seeds of the 12-team conference receive byes to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. The next four host games in the first round and the bottom four play on the road.

While the Bulls (15-8, 6-7) remain in the race to host a first-round game, Kent State -- along with Akron (12-2) and Miami (Ohio, 10-3) -- are all vying for the No. 1 seed. With so much on the line, expect another UB-Kent State barnburner when the teams tip off tonight at Alumni Arena (7, Radio 1520 AM).

In recent years, the Bulls at least gave the illusion of being the one team that can challenge the Golden Flashes. UB has won three of its last four meetings against Kent at Alumni, but this year's Golden Flashes are focused and special.

The Flashes have won eight of their last 10 and are coming off a 67-55 victory over West Division-leading Northern Illinois.

"They are very good, extremely good," UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said on Tuesday. "They are one of the best teams in the country."

The Bulls cannot afford a dreary performance similar to the one they gave Jan. 29 at Kent. Not even the Flashes stirred the tired Bulls, who were chased out of the M.A.C. Center, 70-52. The Bulls didn't present much of a challenge in a game that started a miserable four-game skid that ended with last Saturday's 73-59 victory at Central Michigan.

"If we can come out with enough energy, we will certainly have a chance to succeed," Witherspoon said. "They are playing with a great deal of energy, just a tremendous amount of energy, and we're going to have to work hard to come up with that level of energy to give us a chance."

Energy, or lack thereof, has been an issue with the Bulls since early January. Since their 84-82 overtime loss at Northern Illinois Jan. 4 the Bulls are 5-6. Witherspoon said he saw more oomph during the Central Michigan game, but the staff is still trying to get a grasp on a workable rotation.

"It's been hard," Witherspoon said. "When kids are coming along, they aren't used to playing at a high intensity level and when they try it, sometimes they aren't as effective."

Certainly a few eyebrows were raised when Witherspoon surrounded junior Yassin Idbihi with four freshmen -- Greg Gamble, Christian Schmidt, Andy Robinson and Eric Moore -- in the starting lineup at Central. Senior guards Calvin Cage and Roderick Middleton, who started 23 games this season, came off the bench. Witherspoon wants to lengthen the rotation, while giving the freshmen a confidence boost. Three freshmen -- either Robinson, Gamble, Moore or Sean Smiley -- will start at guard. Schmidt or 7-foot sophomore Andrew Atman will start at forward alongside Idbihi.

"As the season gets longer, the need to have more people contributing gets longer," Witherspoon said. "It's easier for us to get [the freshmen] in at the beginning than it is while the game is going because it's like trying to jump on a moving train."

Cage, Middleton and fellow senior Mario Jordan have spent the majority of their careers at UB providing a spark in reserve.

"They've played so many terrific games off the bench," Witherspoon said. "I told them when they were freshmen that we don't have five starters, we don't play that way. What we've been trying to do this year is play like that and it's been a problem."

The predicament started when junior Parnell Smith suffered a high ankle sprain against Northern Illinois. He missed four games and was hindered by the injury for five more games, before tweaking the ankle in a loss to Miami on Feb. 4. Smith played 10 minutes in a loss to Ball State last week, but missed the Central Michigan game. Smith hasn't practiced this week and while he is not expected to play tonight, Witherspoon expects his return before the end of the regular season.

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St. Bonaventure (7-15, 1-10 Atlantic 10), coming off its first conference win, takes on one of the league's hottest teams in La Salle (15-7, 7-4) at 7 p.m. in Tom Gola Arena (Radio 1300 AM). Led by versatile 6-foot-8 senior Steven Smith, the A-10's leading scorer (19.2 ppg.), the Explorers have won five consecutive games.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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