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Sabres, Bulls put the 'win' in winter

Now that Ralph Wilson Stadium is as dark as the Buffalo Bills' season for the next eight months, what's a Western New York sports fan to do with winter officially arriving Wednesday after two weeks of icy preview?

In other years the answer might have been "get a library card," but right now there are obvious options, namely the Sabres and University at Buffalo basketball. High-level entertainment beckons.

Now that its best players have been liberated, NHL hockey is a joy to watch. Nowhere is it more fun than in HSBC Arena or in front of the tube when the Sabres are on the road, which no longer holds any trepidation for the locals.

Remember all the crabbing before the season began about "they have no superstars"? It turns out that being loaded with a bunch of very good players means that Buffalo is better off than if it had to depend upon superstars. If the opposition puts the handcuffs on a couple of the top offensive Sabres, three or four other guys at the same talent level may still win the game.

Remember also when there were unhappy fans convinced that coach Lindy Ruff had a fetish about boring, defensive hockey? It developed that Ruff gets as giddy as any Sabres' fan when his guys are racing up and down the rink, hectoring the opposition and firing rubber at the enemy goaltender.

In the course of the team's turnaround under the NHL's sane new rules, a couple of the Sabres have taken on the cloaks of superstars. Both of them are goaltenders. Once Marty Biron shook off the rust as a result of doing nothing more strenuous than shopping at Wegmans during the last lost season, he has been a sensation. Before his thumb injury Ryan Miller was also a sensation.

The prospect of sitting before a roaring fire arguing over whether the Sabres should still carry out their plan to trade Biron and how vast the treasure they might get for him if they do trade him should warm the cockles of any fan's heart.

If the Sabres' burst out of the NHL starting gate is a pleasant surprise, UB's 8-1 explosion is an absolute lottery winner. For a few college basketball seasons Alumni Arena has been the place to be, but after so many graduations from last season's sterling team it was expected that the entertainment level would be more tepid. Not even close.

It has been a mere shot from the three-point line that Reggie Witherspoon was taking baby steps as a coach, from Sweet Home High School to Erie Community College to an emergency hire by UB in the wake of a recruiting scandal. The appraisal of Reggie's prospects has sprouted from "I hope they give him enough time to develop" to "This guy can flat-out coach!"

UB presented us with fodder for additional hot-stove lunch discussions by hiring Turner Gill as its new head football coach. The Bulls have had good luck with guys named "Turner." It was just one basketball season ago that point guard Turner Battle was the Mid-American Conference's Player of the Year. This Turner will be watched closely to measure his recruiting success. He's getting a late start but the MAC had four of its products starting at quarterback in the NFL this season. The wish is that Gill finds a quarterback as skilled as he himself was when he led the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Speaking of football recruiting, Bills fans who double as Notre Dame enthusiasts may be talking about a run at the national championship in Charlie Weis' second season. He already loaded up for 2006. Weis didn't use all of his scholarships last season, so he recently used them to sign four top players who graduate from high school in January and will enter Notre Dame at mid-year. Add them to the 23 scholarship spots he has for 2006 and he'll have 27 top-of-the-line freshmen.

Weis proffered more than 70 offers, about three times the number of scholarships available. That allowed him to pressure blue-chip players into committing to Notre Dame by telling them "you have 24 hours to decide, then the scholarship goes to another good player." That may sound rude, but ex-coach Tyrone Willingham was more polite, waited and saw some great prospects defect to other schools.

The Irish's chances for a national title still remain with the pending decisions of their three junior stars -- quarterback Brady Quinn, wide receiver Jeff Samardzija and safety Tom Zbikowski -- whether they will enter the NFL draft early or return for their senior seasons. They'll decide after the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, where Quinn will face the guy his sister is dating, the Buckeyes' All-American linebacker, A.J. Hawk.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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