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For a program that's been accused of being small-time for a long time, the University at Buffalo is thinking big.

This might be the year. UB -- a 20-game loser four times in the last six seasons -- might actually make the NCAA Tournament.

While its football program continues to be stuck in the mud, UB is a pushover in basketball no more.

Prognosticators in the national magazines and Web sites all think UB is going to win the East Division in the Mid-American Conference and challenge Toledo for the MAC's automatic NCAA bid.

That's largely because the Bulls went 12-3 in a thrilling finish to last season. The students stormed the floor after a 16-point thumping of Kent State and again 12 days later when UB dusted Northern Illinois in a MAC prequarterfinal played before an Alumni Arena record crowd of 8,971.

"Other teams used to just blow us off," junior guard Roderick Middleton said. "We would sit around and talk about what it would be like to be a top dog. Now we know the talk could turn to 'We have to beat Buffalo.' "

Saturday night, the Bulls will be playing at defending national champion Connecticut in their season opener. And UB isn't expected to be mere fodder.

"We used to start off games hoping we could win," said coach Reggie Witherspoon. "The last couple years, there were games if we played really well, we knew we could only lose by 20. We don't (begin italic) hope (end italic) we can play well now. We know we can. The mental process has changed."

So has everything else. UB is off probation. In Witherspoon, it has a coach with a long-term contract. Sellout crowds might be possible. And UB has four seniors hoping to cap stellar careers.

"We work hard, play defense and we think we can win games," said forward Mark Bortz, one of the seniors. "We haven't changed internally. From the outside looking in, it's different because people think we can win now."

Rising from nowhere

The Division I era at UB has not been pretty. Sure, there were some decent years under Tim Cohane, including seasons of 18 and 17 wins. But there have been far too many long nights in Amherst.

In its 13 D-I seasons, UB is just 128-238. It went 15-75 in its first 90 MAC games before the turnaround finally happened with last year's 11-7 conference mark.

Two years ago, the Bulls were 5-23 overall and were ranked No. 303 in the RPIs. Last year, they were 17-12 and No. 136. Their 12-game improvement was second in the nation behind Texas-El Paso.

"People used to circle us on their schedule thinking, 'We're gonna hammer them,' " Witherspoon said. "It would be like, 'We'll hammer them early, work on some things late.' Last year it became a quick change."

Sort of like the way Witherspoon got hired. The refresher: Witherspoon moved up from Erie Community College on Dec. 4, 1999 after the forced resignation of Cohane with UB players threatening a boycott of a sold-out game against North Carolina on Dec. 7.

The night of the Carolina game, a campus cop wouldn't let Witherspoon approach an Alumni Arena parking lot until Witherspoon pleaded with him that he, in fact, was the new coach.

The place rocked that night, and UB had a stunning lead at halftime before falling, 91-67. Three nights later, the Bulls played Bob Knight-led Indiana in Assembly Hall.

They lost, 106-55. The next day, they gave up 102 points in a loss to North Texas. By the time they returned home a couple of weeks later, reality had set in.

"We had eight student managers against North Carolina and the stands are full," Witherspoon said. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is how things are at UB. This is pretty good.' Then you come back the next game here and realize that was all a dream. You've got one manager, and you're thinking, 'Where did the other seven guys go?'

"There's nobody in the stands. You can introduce the crowd, not just the team. You think what it would be like to have some part of that Carolina night permanently. It's nice to think we're approaching that."

Laying a cornerstone

If he had any hope of surviving, Witherspoon needed to recruit the MAC-level talent Cohane never found. It started with a North Carolina kid named Turner Battle, who grabbed an opportunity for immediate playing time over a school in a bigger conference.

Witherspoon then got three Michigan players in Bortz, swingman Daniel Gilbert and guard Jason Bird. There hasn't been a four-man senior class like this in the Big 4 since Ray Hall, Mike Smrek, Mike Trivisonno and Gregg Martinsen played at Canisius 20 years ago.

"I've been trying to avoid the thought of Senior Night," Witherspoon said. "Having to say goodbye to them? No way. For four years, they've been like my own kids. And my own kids call them their big brothers."

"I knew when I made this commitment that it would be worthwhile," said Battle, the point guard. "I had no doubts in my mind because of the coaching staff. There were times in my freshman and sophomore years where I never thought this arena would ever be packed. It shows all the hard work we've put in has paid off.

"Believe me, the four of us have seen the bottom. We're ready now to get to the top."

Battle is the conscience of this team and the one player UB can't lose. When he suffered a hand injury two years ago, UB fell apart.

"He's our leader, our heart, the guy on the court who tells everybody what to do," said sophomore center Yassin Idbihi. "There's nobody who puts the ball with the guy who has the best shot like he does."

Enough experience?

Is it really realistic to think UB can be cutting down the nets come March at the MAC Tournament in Cleveland? On talent and game experience, yes. On postseason experience, it might be asking a lot.

Most teams build up to the moment. Here's some water to douse the preseason party: Not only has UB never won a semifinal game in the MAC Tournament, the Bulls haven't even (begin italic) played (end italic) in a semi.

By way of comparison, Big 4 rival Niagara has been in five Metro Atlantic semifinals the last six years and made the championship twice.

Witherspoon doesn't want to look ahead that far. There are so many other goals to reach first.

"Hey, we've never won at Western Michigan," he said. "We've never won at Bowling Green, at Ohio, at Kent State. We've never beaten Toledo, period. We still don't know who we're better than. And that's something we have to find out. You can't think ahead to March."

The Bulls were overwhelmed by Toledo in the second half of last year's quarterfinal, and the experience is one they hope to draw on this year.

"We got our feet wet last year, we know what it takes, and we know the atmosphere," Battle said. "Now we have to take steps forward."

A big step came last year when the 6-foot-10 Idbihi became an offensive force. The Moroccan has put on 25 pounds since last season, and is at 275 pounds after hitting campus at around 240. He could be an all-MAC player as a sophomore.

"He changed the whole dynamic of the team," said the 6-10 Bortz. "It was one more big body in there. It gave us so many more options."

The people's choice

The hope is the buzz on UB's campus spreads around Western New York. Come January, remember, there is likely to be no Sabres games and no Bills games.

UB basketball just might be the hottest ticket in town.

"Every fan is welcome," Idbihi said. "We're happy for every single one that supports us."

"We have a real good opportunity to introduce some people to some quality basketball," Bortz said. "It will be important for the community. They may not have the Sabres. If they're hungry for sports, we hope we'll be their top choice."