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SECOND COMING
LAST YEAR'S FRESHMEN HAVE GROWN UP, AND BIG 4 EXPECTS HEADLINING PERFORMANCES

There's an old adage in college basketball that says the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.

After all, it's assumed that second-year players will have outgrown the head-scratching mistakes they're bound to make in their first season. This year, however, coaches in the Big 4 aren't merely hoping their sophomores will finally start to get it.

They're preparing for them to play major roles.

There are 15 sophomores on the area's four Division I men's teams - and seven or eight could start. There's no time for coddling. No thought of waiting for big contributions when they're juniors and seniors.

The time is now.

"I don't know that there's a (guide) for how you treat sophomores in basketball," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who is expected to start three second-year players on a team pegged to battle for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. "Freshmen you can be more patient with, and seniors you're more understanding with. At least for our team, our (sophomores) have to act more like juniors and seniors this year, and we think they will."

There's no singular reason why the Big 4 has more sophs than any other class. The coaches say it's simply the cyclical nature of recruiting and, hopefully, graduating players.

The schools recruited hard going into last year, knowing they'd have a large number of star seniors leaving at the end of the 2001-02 season. With that knowledge, they pushed their freshmen more than normal.

The result was players such as St. Bonaventure's Mike Gansey, who already has the Reilly Center crowd chanting his name after a dunk or one of his patented headfirst dives for a loose ball. Niagara (Alvin Cruz) and the University at Buffalo (Turner Battle) started freshmen at point guard, and NU forward Juan Mendez was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's Sixth Man of the Year.

With a year in the weight room, players such as Gansey and Mendez are getting pegged by some national magazines as being in the mix to vie for all-conference honors.

"You still have to watch your sophomores a lot, even though they're not freshmen anymore," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon, who has four sophomores. "Their work habits are good, but they're still going through moments of just focusing on what they're doing and not as aware and alert of all that's going on. But even being comfortable with what they're doing is an improvement from last year."

At the point

Though it's expected to push hard for a return trip to the MAAC Tournament final, Niagara is not a deep team. Cruz, Mendez and fellow sophomore David Brooks are expected to be starters this year, so Mihalich convened a meeting with them in his Gallagher Center office earlier this month.

The message was clear: On paper, they're sophomores. On the court, largely because of the graduation of Daryl Greene, Shey Cohen and Michael Schmidt, they better act older.

"I said, "Unfortunately, you guys can't be sophomores. You've got to be veterans. It's not fair, but that's the way it is,' " Mihalich said. " "You don't have the luxury of playing behind four or five seniors.'

"I have confidence they can handle it. They understood and have been very good at practice. We'll see how it plays out."

"I have experience now, and coach told us we have to step up," said Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico who played high school basketball with Mendez in Melbourne, Fla. "There's the three of us and four freshmen on this team, and we have just one senior (backup guard Rhossi Carron). So I have to be a leader on the court and off it."

Cruz started 23 games for Niagara at the point last year, while Battle stepped right in and started all 30 at UB. Remarkably, he had 30 more assists than turnovers.

Battle, an early signee from North Carolina, never looked out of place even if he felt it. Witherspoon said the biggest change he's noticed is that Battle would often look to the bench last year for confirmation he'd made the right decision on the floor. This year, he knows what's right and what's wrong.

"I gave Turner a lot of freedom last year, and he's accepting it a little bit more now," Witherspoon said. "He understands his freedoms now prior to me doling them out. The next thing we have to get him to do is communicate with everyone out there. He knows when it's gone good or gone bad, but sometimes the other four guys don't know.

"He's really confident, and the other guys are really confident in him. But my biggest problem is they can't be all on Turner Battle's team in practice. That has been a day-to-day fight. The people on his team generally play better. That's just a fact."

Battle and Cruz admitted their adjustment to college ball was initially difficult.

"I've played point guard my whole life, so I just had to learn the system," Battle said. "We had some experienced players last year like Louis Campbell, Davis Lawrence, Clem Smith and Darcel Williams. They helped me out a whole lot and helped me grow into the job."

Star power

Cruz was expected to have an immediate impact at Niagara. Mendez was a surprise. The Purple Eagles took him on recommendation from a coach at Florida Air Academy, where Cruz and Mendez were prep stars. You like our point guard? We've got a great power forward for you, too.

Despite starting only six games, Mendez finished fourth on the Purple Eagles in scoring and second in rebounding.

"It really made it easier for me to come in with the point guard," said Mendez, a Montreal native. "He's the quarterback, the main asset on the club. I knew Alvin had the materials to be a great point guard at this level, and it helped me so much to have him here."

The Bonnies, meanwhile, will forever be grateful to former coach Jim Baron. Gansey was his last recruit - and the first player coach Jan van Breda Kolff made a home visit to (to essentially re-recruit) when he got the Bona job in April 2001.

Gansey was an immediate hit in Olean, as he was as apt to soar for a dunk and can a three-pointer as he was to earn stitches while diving for loose balls.

"Every day you have to go hard, and that's your biggest adjustment," said Gansey, from suburban Cleveland. "In high school, if you're the best player it gets to the point where you're taking a day off, especially in practice. Here, everyone is as good as you are. You better play hard."

Gansey has dedicated himself in the weight room, adding 15 pounds and 3 inches to his vertical leap under the direction of Bona strength coach Darryn Fiske.

"I feel great, and I owe a lot to him," Gansey said. "Last year seemed like a long season to my body, and I was tired by the end. I'm ready to go this year."

"Gansey was ready to play right from the start as a freshman," van Breda Kolff said. "But Mike is not here to defer to (graduated star) J.R. Bremer anymore and be the cute kid who comes off the bench to get the loose balls and make some shots. Now he's a guy we're counting on to score significant points."

The up-and-comers

Some of the area's other sophomores are going on a more normal career path, starting slow and building into a more important role.

There's plenty of excitement at Bona about 6-foot-5 Maurice Young, a transfer from Virginia who will be eligible at the end of the first semester. Young is a former Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Week who is expected to give the Bonnies another strong perimeter threat. He could have the kind of impact Miami (Fla.) transfer Kevin Houston had two years ago when he led the Bonnies in scoring.

The difference is Houston had just one year of eligibility and Young will have 2 1/2 seasons to flourish in Olean.

Perhaps the most improved Bonnie is Patrick Methot-Lottin, a 6-6 wing player from Cameroon who played high school ball in suburban Washington, D.C. He figures to be Bona's top three-point specialist off the bench.

Niagara is expected to start the 6-3 Brooks at off guard after the Philadelphia native sat much of last year behind Greene. The Purple Eagles have been high on Brooks since he came on campus and think he's poised for a breakout year.

"I made sure to learn all I could from Daryl," Brooks said. "I watched him as much as I could, and it's made me a better player. He's gone, but our team is so hungry. We almost went all the way last year (losing in the MAAC final at Siena). We were that close. We want to take that next step."

"We have high expections for David, and he has high expectations for himself," Mihalich said. "There have been times he's been our best player in practice. He can score and do a lot of things."

Witherspoon has three other sophomores he's counting on in 6-10 Mark Bortz and guards Jason Bird and Danny Gilbert. Bortz, who is as comfortable from the three-point arc as he is from the inside, had his third knee operation in April, and that's a concern in the UB camp.

Canisius guard Chris Ravello is instant energy off the bench, especially on defense. And the Griffs have big plans for 6-6 Richard Jones, who will take his athleticism directly into the starting lineup this season.

"When I see Richard, I see Darrell Barley and I see Craig Wise," coach Mike MacDonald said, referring to a pair of recent Canisius star forwards. "I know it's almost sacrilegious for me to say that because I hold those guys to the highest level. That's what we need Richard to be, a slashing scoring forward."

Like most freshmen dealing with Canisius' intricate system of passing forwards, Jones struggled last year, hitting just 25 percent from the field. Still, this is a player who led his high school team in Boston to a 57-1 record his final two years while averaging 18 points as a senior. He had a season-high nine points against Notre Dame, a game that certainly tantalized Griffs fans.

"In preseason last year, Rich was playing great," Canisius senior point guard Brian Dux said. "But he lost his confidence early in the year, and it's tough for him to get it back. This summer and preseason, it's been back to the old Richard Jones, and he's ready to go. The skills are there. You can see the athleticism."

"After a year of being with the team and getting used to the plays, things are a lot better now," Jones said. "I'm a lot more comfortable. I'm able to just get out there and playing and not messing up. This year I'm ready for a bigger role."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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