Two seasons ago, when the University at Buffalo began its rise in the Mid-American Conference, stubborn defense was the program's signature. These days, the Bulls' defense is as impenetrable as a peanut shell.
The Bulls rank near the bottom of the league in points allowed and field-goal percentage defense, and coming into tonight's road game at Ohio University (7 p.m., Radio 1520 AM), UB has allowed an average of 102 points in its last two games.
Substandard defense is a byproduct of the Bulls' recent slide, which has them 3-7 in their past 10 games and barely clinging to the possibility of hosting a first-round game for the MAC Tournament. The Bulls (16-10, 6-8) are tied with Toledo (6-8) for the No. 7 seed and need to finish in the top eight to host a first-round game. For that to happen, UB must return to its roots and start playing tough man-to-man defense.
"When we don't defend with energy, we get scored on," UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said.
Swingman Daniel Gilbert was the leader of the defense last season and kept everyone accountable. Gilbert drew the opponent's best offensive player, no matter what position, and challenged his teammates to dig in defensively.
Junior Darwin Young has taken on the role left by Gilbert, and so has freshman Greg Gamble, but not with any consistency. Witherspoon said during the preseason that Gilbert would be the most difficult player to replace and that appears to be correct.
"It's a heck of a challenge," Witherspoon said.
What the Bulls are left with is a skeleton of the defensive group from the past two seasons. Buffalo ranks 10th in the MAC in points allowed (69.3 ppg), 11th in field-goal percentage defense (.470) and is prone to giving up scoring outbursts. Last season, teams shot .429 from the floor, third best in the league, and .339 from three-point range, fourth in the MAC. The Bulls' man-to-man defense has been too yielding, so the Bulls are playing more zone defense than ever, much to the chagrin of Witherspoon.
In the Bulls' 93-75 loss at Iona last Saturday, guard Steve Burtt hit 9 of 15 from the field for 27 points and matched a career best with five three-pointers. In last week's stunning 111-107 double overtime loss to Kent State, the Golden Flashes' Kevin Warzynski scored 23 points off the bench and nailed three consecutive three-pointers late to help send the game into overtime.
Witherspoon has tried a number of lineup changes to address the defense issue and will probably shake it up again tonight. At Iona, he started junior Yassin Idbihi along with sophomore Andrew Atman and freshmen Andy Robinson, Eric Moore and Sean Smiley.
The Bulls face an Ohio team experiencing similar struggles. The Bobcats have gone just 3-4 since losing to UB, 70-51. They took a hit when sophomore point guard Jeremy Fears decided last week to transfer to a school closer to his Joliet, Ill., home. But the Bobcats are coming off a 64-54 victory over Samford on Saturday in which junior forward Sonny Troutman scored a season-high 28 points.
Niagara (10-15, 7-9 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) plays its final two regular-season games on the road, starting Thursday at Marist (16-9, 10-6), while Canisius (7-18, 5-11 MAAC) plays at St. Peter's (13-13, 8-8) on Friday. St. Bonaventure (7-17, 1-12 Atlantic 10) is idle until Sunday, when the Bonnies travel to Duquesne (3-21, 1-12).