Most first-year men stagger into drawn-out rebuilding projects but Bobby Hurley’s foray into college coaching is filled not with uncertainty, but expectations. It was a team, nevertheless, that hinted at more than it ultimately delivered and although its run in the league tournament was nothing to sniff at, it isn’t so far from an NCAA Tournament berth that Hurley, who replaces local favorite Reggie Witherspoon, can’t stretch his resources a bit.
Expect the Bulls to be one of the first in line in the MAC due in large part to the return of the league’s dominating big man, his unassuming sidekick along the frontcourt and the return of its seasoned point guard.
“I’m kind of lucky and fortunate to have some good players in the program that have been great to work with in both skill development and in practice,” said Hurley, the former Duke All-American point guard. “I think we did some nice recruiting and adding nice pieces to our team that will give us the right balance that we’re looking for.”
It starts with 6-foot-7 senior forward Javon McCrea, everybody’s preseason MAC Player of the Year, who has often carried the Bulls the last three seasons. Junior forward Will Regan, the 6-7 Nichols product, performed as well as any player in the MAC the last seven games when he averaged 16.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. The return of Jarod Oldham from a wrist injury should help stabilize an offense that was last in the league in turnover margin.
The 6-3 Oldham led the league in assists two years ago but was limited to 11 games last season. Sophomore Jarryn Skeete replaced Oldham and performed well enough to earn MAC All-Freshman honors. Senior Auraum Nuiriankh, a defensive savant, started all 34 games last season. Also returning are senior Corey Raley-Ross and junior Xavier Ford, who have yet to make an impact and could have trouble cracking the rotation.
They’ll miss Tony Watson, the league leader in turnover ratio, who drained 77 three-pointers last season which was second in the MAC.
Alabama State transfer Josh Freelove, who averaged 13.3 points last season, provides an infusion of scoring in the backcourt and will prevent defenses from pitching a tent around McCrea because he can create his own shot. Justin Moss, a 6-7, 240-pound junior college transfer from Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, will compliment McCrea with his physical, rebounding presence in the post.
Keys to success
Hurley feels good about the Bulls, particularly offensively where the staff addressed some of the concerns in terms of perimeter shooting. The addition of Freelove and freshmen Shannon Evans and Deyshonee Much improves the Bulls’ depth at guard. This should also help defensively as Hurley wants to pressure the opposition’s guards more which in turn creates more steals, a category where the Bulls finished last in the MAC a year ago.
The foundation of Witherspoon’s program was defense, something Hurley stresses as well.
“We can play the style of defense that I’m used to playing,” Hurley said. “I think it’s all about a commitment to that end of the floor and we’ve been stressing the importance of playing the defensive end of the floor at a very high level.”
The nonleague portion is manageable. UB opens against a Texas A&M team that has grown stagnant under Billy Kennedy before facing Niagara, which is being retooled under first-year coach Chris Casey.
Next up are four consecutive games at Alumni Arena against West Virginia Wesleyan, Robert Morris, Delaware State and St. Bonaventure before matchups against a pair of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contenders in Canisius at First Niagara Center and Manhattan at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. True to form, games against the MAC elite are back-loaded as contests with Ohio, Akron and Kent State come over the last seven games of the regular season.
It would be a shame if McCrea, one of the finest players in the program’s history, doesn’t end his career in the NCAA Tournament. This won’t be a solo act with Regan playing a key role and an additional scoring partner in Freelove. But it will be up to Hurley, who has never been a head coach until now, to design a philosophy to maximize the Bulls’ talents. If that happens, the Bulls will be a real threat to win the MAC crown.