Byron Mulkey sat at the interview table transfixed by the game snippets that kept playing through his mind. His jaw was tight, his eyes distant. He looked like the witness to an accident striving to recall the fine details and determine what he could have done to stop it from happening.
For 20 minutes Thursday night, Mulkey had the upper hand in his matchup with BYU preseason All-American Jimmer Fredette. He'd held Fredette to six points at intermission, forced him into 1 of 9 shooting. Fredette seemed to well with frustration as he forced a couple of shots and launched others with his body out of control. The first-time Fredette viewers in the near-sellout crowd of 5,803 had to be thinking they'd been snookered by the hype.
And then the second half rolled around and out stepped the Jimmer Fredette named to at least eight preseason All-American teams. He cooked up 28 points, finishing with 34, while using every utensil in the kitchen. Step-back three? Swish. Pull-up jumper? Swish. Stutter-step crossover on the break for a layup? You could sprain an ankle just watching. Ten of his 15 second-half shots found the bottom of the net.
UB coach Reggie Witherspoon is one of the area's reigning experts on Western New York high school and college basketball from 1970 on. Witherspoon, like most men in middle age, typically is partial to players from bygone eras. After all, don't we all tend to be more awe-struck as youths than we are as adults?
That's the reason Witherspoon hesitated in assessing Fredette's performance Thursday night. He wanted to think a little harder about what he was about to say. And then he said it. He can't remember a visiting player better than Fredette ever coming to town to face a local team.
I'm going to mull that over for a day before deciding whether to agree. Wally Szczerbiak was a pretty good player at Miami (Ohio). UConn's Hasheem Thabeet ended up being the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. Adonal Foyle (Colgate) and Vin Baker (Hartford) had game. Didn't Christian Laettner play in the Aud? And I know I'm forgetting a bunch of other candidates. Even so, it's an argument that can't be won although the debate would certainly be fascinating.
What Mulkey couldn't see in the immediate aftermath, what the competitor inside refused to let him see, is that even in a 90-82 defeat this game validated UB (7-4) as a rock-solid contender in the MAC, a team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. Mulkey played a few seconds short of 40 minutes and produced 16 points and eight assists of his own. UB put five players in double figures and shot an astounding 55.9 percent from the floor. Freshman forward Javon McCrea continues to amaze as he scored 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting.
"At times we were really clicking. When we move the ball sideline to sideline offensively we're a very good team," said Mitchell Watt, who scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds. "And BYU was a very good defensive team. They hassled the ball a lot. They had a lot of on-ball pressure. They got help-side defense consistently. So I think it is a testament to how good we can be offensively when we do what we need to do with the ball and play as a team."
The Bulls still have work to do. Twenty turnovers doesn't cut it. Nor does the 13 offensive rebounds they allowed.
But as Watt said, the potential is great. Granted, the MAC schedule is a minefield. Ohio, Kent and Akron all look formidable -- and that's just in the East Division. Tough games await, particularly on the road.
At least the Bulls know that not again this season will they see a player the likes of Fredette, which is surely a relief to Mulkey, who on this night couldn't get him out of his head.