Seeing the University at Buffalo practice makes it easy to believe coach Reggie Witherspoon when he says, "We're doing things at a quicker pace."
Witherspoon's teams generally play at a medium tempo because he usually has solid play in the low post and the 2006-07 team with Yassin Idbihi was no exception. But with a roster brimming with several capable perimeter players and inexperience on the low blocks, the Bulls will press more and try and create points off turnovers.
"I think we'll be a fun team to watch," said Witherspoon, who is in his ninth season. "It will be a matter of how fast we can get up to speed and how fast they learn to play well together."
The Bulls hope increasing the pace will help them rebound from a disappointing 12-19 season in which they finished 4-12 in the Mid-American Conference. They also must replace three of their top four scorers, most notably Idbihi, who also led the team in rebounding.
But UB has depth and experience on the perimeter, which should give the Bulls a strong outside attack. The question marks are in the post, where it will be difficult to replace Idbihi and Parnell Smith.
"We need more guys to do more things," Witherspoon said. "It's got to be more of a collective effort."
The Bulls' strength is undoubtedly in the backcourt and a four-guard lineup could be in the cards.
In the Bulls' exhibition game against Buffalo State, Witherspoon started guards Andy Robinson, Byron Mulkey, Sean Smiley and Rodney Pierce along with 6-foot-9 Vadim Fedotov at center. As a team, they forced a mind-boggling 53 turnovers, an indicator that Witherspoon is serious about creating more offensive opportunities off turnovers.
The backcourt is led by Mulkey, a 6-foot sophomore from Niagara-Wheatfield who emerged over the last 11 games a year ago and started 10. It wasn't a coincidence that the Bulls stopped turning over the ball once Mulkey became the starter at the point. Pierce, the former Hutch-Tech star and Rider transfer, is a streaky shooter who can also play the point, as can sophomore John Boyer. Mulkey, Pierce and Boyer were so good in practice last season that Eric Moore, the Bulls' second-leading scorer, saw the handwriting on the wall and transferred to Fairleigh Dickinson.
The leading returning scorer is Robinson, a junior who averaged 20.7 points over the last four games and is also the team's top defender on the perimeter. Also returning is junior Greg Gamble, a two-year starter who enjoyed a strong showing during the Empire State Games last summer.
The team's best outside threat could be Smiley, a junior who missed all but two games last season with injuries. Sophomore Calvin Betts, who played sparingly as a freshman, will also see time in the frontcourt.
It can be argued that Idbihi was the best big man ever produced at UB. He made an immediate impact on the court and his effervescent personality was a hit in the locker room. He will be impossible to replace.
"We miss him already," Witherspoon said.
When the MAC season rolls around, they will miss him more. Successful MAC teams usually have good play up front, especially at power forward, and the Bulls don't have a big man on the roster who averaged more than 3.3 points and 2.4 points last season.
At 6-9, 260 pounds, Fedotov is a big body but he's already had three knee surgeries and has trouble staying healthy. Fifth-year senior Andrew Atman will back up Fedotov, but he's been woefully inconsistent throughout his career. Canadians Max Boudreau and Kambi Leleye, both sophomores, showed infrequent flashes of talent last season, while senior Christian Schmidt has a broken foot that will keep him out at least until December.
The Bulls signed two newcomers in Brian Addison, a 6-8 junior college transfer from Monroe Community College, and 6-8 freshman Jawaan Alston from Uniontown, Pa. Addison should make an immediate impact in the low post, while Alston has quickness and shot-blocking ability along the baseline. Still, both are unproven.
Last season, UB was tied for 12th nationally in rebounding, but rebounding could be a huge problem this year. Turnovers were such an issue for the Bulls last season that it reached comedic proportions. During one 12-game stretch in which they won four games, the Bulls averaged 22.8 turnovers, including a school-record 32 against Toledo. The schedule, which includes South Florida, Pittsburgh, Tulane and Wyoming before the MAC portion kicks in, is not going to be forgiving.
The Bulls have a lot of potential but are young and inexperienced up front. They should be able to cut down on the turnovers, but rebounds could be hard to come by. They are at least a year away from becoming a factor again in the MAC race.
This is the first of five days of college basketball preview stories.
*Today: University at Buffalo.
*Wednesday: St. Bonaventure, plus local non-Division I and junior colleges.
*Thursday: Syracuse and Rodney McKissic's Top 25.