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GETTING BETTER WILL TAKE WORK

The Big Picture: It's time for a reality check.

The University at Buffalo had a good season last year - not exactly awe-inspiring, but good. The Bulls won 12 games - they won just 14 in the previous three seasons - and scored an upset over Elite Eight participant Kent State. Quite a joy ride for a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1997-98.

While the Bulls are expected to improve on last year's record, it might be time to temper those expectations because of the loss of starters Darcel Williams, Louis Campbell and Robert Brown - the team's top three scorers - and reserves Gabe Cagwin and Kevin Swoffer.

Co-captains Clement Smith and Turner Battle return but are surrounded by eight freshmen and sophomores, not including sophomore Battle. Smith, point guard Davis Lawrence and center Joe Veal are the only seniors on the roster, and Smith and Lawrence are the only players not recruited by Reggie Witherspoon, who begins his fourth season at UB.

"With as much youth as we have, we have to work to get better every day," Witherspoon said. "We just have to."

What's Up: By the time last year was over, Battle had wreaked havoc with the adage that freshman point guards can't lead a team successfully. From the minute he assumed the starting job the first day of practice, Battle was in charge. He ran the Bulls well. He scored, defended and didn't make mistakes that often pester the development of first-year players. The 6-foot-3 sophomore from North Carolina is the best playmaker in the Mid-American Conference's East Division and arguably the entire league.

"A lot of the success other people have in scoring will depend on Turner Battle's ability to make other people better," Witherspoon said.

The backcourt is deep and returns some experience, starting with 6-4 sophomore Jason Bird, who played in 24 games last season and has shown better touch from the outside during the preseason. Also returning is 6-6 sophomore Daniel Gilbert, who started the final two games last season and can swing to the frontcourt. They are joined in the backcourt by freshmen Calvin Cage, Roderick Middleton and Mario Jordan.

The 5-11 Cage is a potent three-point shooter who is quick off the dribble. The 6-3, 205-pound Middleton eventually could blossom into the team's most versatile player and is the showpiece of the freshman class. He will see playing time at three positions, but his most comfortable position appears to be the point, where he'll back up Battle. The wild card is 6-5 swingman Jason Walcott, the team's lone junior, who appeared in five games before being declared academically ineligible for the second half of the season. Witherspoon said he'll play because he's athletic and can defend.

The front line doesn't have as much depth but returns the ever-improving Smith, a 6-8 center who at times is relentless in the low post. If 6-10 sophomore Mark Bortz can stay healthy, he has the skills to be one of the league's premier big men.What's Down: The season could rest on the knee of Bortz. He twice fractured the growth plate in his tibia as a junior in high school, and after the injury healed Bortz couldn't straighten the knee.

"Every time Mark runs, his kneecap never gets a chance to relax because he can't straighten his knee all the way," UB athletics trainer Judy Dehn said. "It puts a lot of force on the kneecap." That means, at least for the time being, Bortz has to play in some pain and his services could be limited. After Smith, Bortz averaged the most minutes of any frontcourt player last season, and it is essential he remains healthy.

Consistent shooting could be a problem, and the Bulls will sorely miss the outside presences of Williams and Campbell. The collection of freshmen and sophomores is a sign of potentially great things within the MAC down the road, but not immediately.

Outlook: The Bulls are not expected to take a step back from their sixth-place finish in the MAC East, although you don't lose players such as Williams, Campbell and Brown and not experience bumps in the road.

Witherspoon has talent in the fast-developing pivot play of Smith, and Battle is solid if not spectacular. To finish in the upper reaches of the MAC, Witherspoon needs Cage and Middleton to produce, Bird to shoot with more consistency and Bortz to remain healthy. Fifteen wins is a practical goal.

Roster

No. Name Pos Yr Ht

1 Jason Bird G So. 6-4

10 Calvin Cage G Fr. 5-11

11 Turner Battle G So. 6-3

15 Clement Smith C Sr. 6-8

20 Steve McDonnell G Fr. 6-1

22 Roderick Middleton G/F Fr. 6-3

23 Jason Walcott G/F Jr. 6-5

25 Davis Lawrence G Sr. 5-10

31 Daniel Gilbert G/F So. 6-6

33 Mario Jordan G/F Fr. 6-6

40 Joe Veal C Sr. 6-9

42 Mark Bortz F So. 6-10

44 B.J. Walker F Fr. 6-9

Head Coach: Reggie Witherspoon

Assistants: Michael Mennenga, Jim Kwitchoff, Chris Hawkins

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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