When Fajri Ansari became the men's basketball coach at Buffalo State last season, he had no preconceived notions of immediate success.
He had big shoes to fill, replacing coaching legend Dick Bihr. But Ansari was confident he could build a winner at Buffalo State, just as Bihr did during his 25 years at the school. However, he's not going to be able to do it overnight.
The team was hot at midseason after winning eight of nine to get to 9-4 overall and 4-1 -- good for first place -- in the State University of New York Athletic Conference. But the Bengals have lost five games in a row, all in the conference, heading into tonight's visit to Fredonia at 8. The team is on a similar path to last season, when Ansari led the Bengals to a 13-13 record and a tournament berth.
"In terms of coaching in the league, I watched a lot of games so it wasn't totally new to me," said Ansari, who guided Turner-Carroll High School to two state Federation championships, five state Catholic school titles and three Manhattan Cup crowns from 1989 until the school closed in 2003.
"And having worked in the SUNY system for 25 years I had already visited some of the campuses. With that said, it has been a new experience and certainly a learning experience. Not only am I happy to be coaching basketball, I'm happy to do it here at Buffalo State, where I have spent over half my life as an employee."
Buffalo State was competitive in Ansari's first year, losing seven games by eight or fewer points. The season might have been better if several key players weren't lost to injuries.
His initial challenge was getting the players to adapt to his system and embrace him as a coach. Mission accomplished.
"When Coach Ansari came here, he got everybody to buy in," said senior guard Jay Wingate, one of two holdovers from the Bihr era. "I knew he was a good coach and he proved to us that he's the right guy to lead this program."
Recruiting shouldn't be a problem for Ansari, who developed strong national contacts while coaching Turner-Carroll and AAU teams in the summer. He has received numerous calls and e-mails from people with information on prospects. His roster has players from his native New York City to California.
Recruiting in Western New York is a high priority. While Maryvale product Santo Lamar is the only local on the roster, Ansari plans to put on a full-court press to attract more Buffalo-area talent.
Ansari recruits the junior college ranks as well, but he made it clear that high school players will be the foundation of his program.
"Ideally, you want to build with freshmen who will be in your program for four years because by the time they are juniors and seniors they have a good understanding of what is expected," he said. "At the same time, I knew we had to get some transfers in here for us to be competitive right away."
Despite a roster of 11 new players, the Bengals are holding their own. In a tournament game in Orlando, Fla., they faced Lincoln (Pa.) University, which scored an NCAA single-game record 201 points earlier this season. Buffalo State "held" Lincoln to 110 points in a seven-point overtime defeat.
"If we didn't play any defense, they would have scored 150 points," Ansari cracked.
The Bengals are led by point guard Khary "Bubba" Wood, a junior college transfer from Brooklyn. The stocky 5-foot-10, 200-pounder leads the team in scoring (13.9 points per game), assists (4.9), steals (2.6) and is third in rebounds and fourth in rebounding average (4.3).
But Buffalo State is far from a one-man team. Thirteen players have started at least one game and 10 are averaging more than 10 minutes per contest.
"We have so many guys that can play, you can't key on one person," Wood said. "Having so many guys who can come in and contribute gives us a big advantage."
Ansari needs a deep bench to play his full-court, up-tempo style that is designed to wear down opponents.
Just as important to Ansari, playing a lot of people has created a competitive atmosphere among his players.
"This year we have a lot of talent and guys are pushing each other," said Dion Mozelle (11.6 ppg., 5.4 rpg.), an athletic junior forward who was an honorable mention All-SUNYAC pick last season. "Competition within the team makes us better because you know you have to maximize your effort to stay on the court."
Ansari will continue to get his reserves playing time and rely on his bench. Because injuries can strike anytime, he wants to have people ready to step in.
His front court depth is already being tested. Starting power forward Dante Griggs, the team's top rebounder and second-leading scorer, is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a broken thumb on his left (shooting) hand.
The Bengals' losing streak has made it almost impossible for them to win the regular season championship, even though four of their remaining six games are against teams below them in the standing. They stand eighth out of 11 teams and have four more losses than first-place Brockport (6-2).
"We talk about our season in terms of phases," Ansari said. "The first phase is the preseason. The second phase is the nonleague games. Right now we're in our third phase, which is our conference schedule. The next phase would be the SUNYAC tournament and our goal is to reach Phase Five, which is winning the league championship and advancing to the NCAAs.
"Obviously we can't look too far ahead or look back. We want to stay in the present and understand this is another step towards where we're trying to get."