Three years have passed since Mark Bortz arrived on the campus of the University at Buffalo, a little heavy, a little slow, enthralled with his perimeter game, disdainful of the rigors of life beneath the basket. You had to wonder what coach Reggie Witherspoon was thinking in recruiting the kid. How were the Bulls going to compete in the Mid-American Conference latching on to 6-foot-10 post players who fancied themselves as guards?
The reality is that complete players rarely arrive on the doorstep of mid-major programs. Most every freshman is a project, the pieces scattered, assembly required. Recruiting at the mid-major is all about projection, taking the clay and envisioning the sculpture. Bortz had size and, just as important, possessed an irrepressible passion. He wanted to learn. He wanted to improve. He wanted to win. It was a start.
Look what the Bulls have now. Bortz is the main reason UB enters Saturday's HSBC Arena tripleheader 1-1 instead of 0-2, his 24 points, nine boards and two blocks the foundation for success in Tuesday's thrilling 87-84 overtime victory over Fairleigh Dickinson.
It was a resounding performance, a natural follow-up to what transpired during the second half of Saturday's loss at Connecticut, the defending national champion and home to perhaps the country's most fearsome collection of low-post players. Bortz, a senior from Commerce Township, Mich., passed his graduate-level exam that night, and it resulted in this exchange between Bortz and Witherspoon at Tuesday's postgame news conference:
RW: Mark and I had a long talk today, didn't we?
MB: Yes, we did.
RW: Yes, we did. We had a nice film session today.
MB: Yes, we did.
RW: We had a very nice film session. We looked at Saturday night's game against UConn.
MB: Yes, we did.
RW: Best front line in America. Right?
RW: Yes. We looked at that, and Mark showed up to play the second half against that front line, right?
RW: Eight points, seven rebounds in 14 minutes against the best front line in America. It's time to put Mark Bortz on display. He doesn't do that, he's taking food off his family's table. True or false, Mark?
RW: OK. There you have it.
There are few similarities between the Bortz of today and the one who first arrived on UB's campus. His body is streamlined, muscular. He's quicker afoot. He's become a force in the low post while maintaining his outside touch. Talk about development. Bortz the freshman doesn't fetch the alley-oop Turner Battle threw 20 inches above the rim Tuesday night, let alone ram it home.
What Bortz gives the Bulls extends beyond his talent. He's their emotional conscience, a supercharged spirit who typically comes off the bench to kindle the fire. His exuberance, his two-handed floor slaps meant to inspire UB at the defensive end, have endeared him to a student section appreciative of his grittiness, his zest.
"I think Bortz is definitely a big emotional leader, especially if things aren't going as good as they're supposed to be," said Battle, the senior point guard. "When I look him in the eye, see the fire in his eye, I want to have the same thing because I feel as though I'll be letting him down if I wasn't giving the same amount of energy as he's giving."
He's come a long way. That's what Witherspoon was telling him. It's no longer a matter of projecting how good he might be. Bortz needs to recognize that he's arrived.