The University at Buffalo opened its basketball season with its point guard undetermined and three sophomores angling for minutes. Consider the contest closed, at least for the moment, there being no such thing as forever when youth steps to the fore.
The Bulls have managed the unlikely, upgrading the point position to where last year's revelation, Byron Mulkey, suddenly finds himself relegated to a reserve role. And with good reason. Rodney Pierce, the Hutch-Tech graduate who sat out last season after transferring from Rider, is a step up in class when he's on -- taller, a better long-range gunner and capable of shooting off the dribble.
Pierce staked claim to the starting spot Tuesday night with a performance that was, first and foremost, predominantly controlled and consistent, although it didn't hurt that he threw in a sprinkling of the spectacular. He made 8 of 10 shots from the field, good for a career-high 20 points in a 76-69 conquest of Big East doormat South Florida at Alumni Arena.
Coach Reggie Witherspoon spent the first two games of the season searching for a firm answer at the point. While Pierce started all three games his minutes were dependent upon how well he acclimated to the UB offense. That he played eight minutes in a season-opening win over Ohio Valley, less than both Mulkey, a Niagara Wheatfield graduate, and walk-on John Boyer, spoke to the uncertainty of his status.
"They're going to kind of dictate the minutes, and how they play in those minutes will dictate who starts down the road," Witherspoon said after Tuesday's shootaround, referring to Pierce and Mulkey. "The greatest problem to have is if they're both playing very well, whether they come off the bench or whether they start. Then we're truly deep."
The Bulls had the best of both worlds against guard-oriented South Florida. Pierce was solid over 27 minutes, committing four turnovers, a season low, while producing three steals, three assists and an unexpected seven rebounds. Mulkey kept the offense flowing in Pierce's absence, overseeing the show during an eight-minute stretch of the second half when the Bulls extended their advantage to a game-high nine points. His steal that led to a Sean Smiley layup capped a decisive six-point burst.
Mulkey could be logging fewer minutes this season but that won't necessarily mean his importance has diminished. Throughout his tenure Witherspoon has emphasized his bench, particularly his sixth and seventh men. He's partial to reserves who can energize a team, defensively or offensively, as Mark Bortz and Calvin Cage have done in the past. Smiley filled that role adeptly against South Florida, scoring 16 points while hitting 4 of 9 shots from three-point range.
"I just think it's so important," Witherspoon said of his bench. "The only benefit to starting is that you get to hear your name called and you run out there and people go, 'Oh, he's a starter.' But once you get past that there's really not a whole lot of benefit. You're unlikely to start a game and just knock the other team out. I think what's more likely is you're going to need guys to come off the bench and play like starters."
The Bulls backcourt took a leap forward Tuesday in terms of pacing the offense. No, it wasn't perfect. There were occasions when both Pierce and Mulkey knew no speed but full speed. But having former four-year starter Turner Battle on the bench as an assistant coach is already paying dividends, Battle having been a master conductor.
"I had a lot of work with Turner during the week on the tempo of the game," Pierce said. "I'm learning a lot from him."