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First-place UB gets no respect

During a conference call this week for the Mid-American Conference, a reporter asked several coaches who was the best team in the league's East Division. The University at Buffalo was barely mentioned.

It seemed peculiar since the Bulls, even after losing back-to-back games to Ball State and Bowling Green, still have the league's best record. The Bulls (17-7, 9-3) were picked to finish last in the division during the preseason and even with four league games remaining there's obviously some sentiment that the Bulls aren't for real.

"You can't change what people want to believe if that's what they want to believe," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon. "I don't know what they want to believe, but whatever they choose to believe is up to them."

Up until last Sunday's loss at Ball State, UB had won nine in a row and proved it could win on the road with a tight-fisted defense that often held opponents under 50 points. Maybe it was an oversight by the coaches because UB hasn't been in this position since the 2004-05 season. Or maybe it's because the coaches have figured out how to beat the Bulls.

UB is physical, but Ball State managed to outrebound the Bulls. Against Bowling Green, the Falcons played a sagging 2-3 zone defense and hoped that UB would miss jump shots, which they did to the tune of 7 of 26 from behind the three-point arc. UB's defense is good enough to contend, now the team must prove it can score.

After today's BracketBuster game at Vermont (21-7), there are games against Akron, Ohio, Kent State and Miami to end the regular season. UB leads the division at 9-3, while Akron, Miami, Bowling Green and Kent State are all knotted in second place at 8-4. But it's almost as if UB is chasing the rest of the pack.

"People are looking at us now the way they were looking at us in the beginning of the year," Witherspoon said. "We're fine with that."

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Arizona State's James Harden is skyrocketing his way up the draft charts, and some scouts say the sophomore guard could be the No. 2 pick overall behind Oklahoma's Blake Griffin.

The 6-foot-5, 218-pound Harden is a high risk (89 turnovers), high reward (52.9 percent shooting) player who could make the Sun Devils (20-5, 9-4 Pac 10) a tough out in the NCAAs. He's averaging 21.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists.

"Think about [former NBA guard] Nick Anderson but a better playmaker," said a Pac 10 assistant. "He'll go for a stretch where he has six assists and two points because he's so unselfish. He may be the best NBA prospect in the country."

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Staying out West, it seems Arizona is doing just fine without retired coach Lute Olson. After starting the season 11-8, the Wildcats are 18-8, 8-5 in the Pac 10. The streak started on Jan. 24 against Houston, when Cougars guard Aubrey Coleman stepped on the face of the Wildcats' Chase Budinger. That started a string of seven consecutive wins. If Arizona keeps this up, coach Russ Pennell can remove that interim tag.

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When Joe Mihalich reached his 200th win at Niagara, he joined a select group. He is one of six active coaches with 200 wins and a .600 winning percentage while coaching just one school, joining Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Phil Martelli (St. Joseph's), Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Rick Stansbury (Mississippi State). Mihalich now has a 200-130 record. The combined career record of the other Big 4 coaches -- UB's Witherspoon, Canisius' Tom Parrotta and St. Bonaventure's Mark Schmidt -- is 295-375.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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