When your senior leader is a dominant personality and also one of your hardest workers, your team has a head start on winning.
Willie Conner showed why he fills that role for the University at Buffalo basketball team Saturday. He showed up early and stayed late for the morning shoot-around, then led the Bulls to an easy win over Coppin State.
Conner tied a career high with 28 points and made a career-best eight three-pointers in UB’s 87-52 rout.
“I’m happy for Willie,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “He stays in the gym and he shoots. Him and Blake Hamilton were the two that stayed after the shoot-around today and got shots up. He’s in the gym a lot. He deserves to have good shooting days. . . . It’s not rocket science. You work really hard, and you knock down shots in the game.”
Conner, the 6-foot-5 Chicago native, is a critical piece of UB’s bid for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. He ranked third on the team in scoring last season at 11.8 ppg. He was the most valuable player of the Mid-American Conference tournament after scoring 54 points in three games.
He has started this season even stronger than last year. Conner boosted his average to 15 ppg, and he’s shooting 39.4 percent from three-point range. Last year, he shot only 34.3 percent behind the arc.
“I hit one coming off a screen and got knocked down, and I was like, ‘All right, I’m feeling it a little bit,’” Conner said. “I think I was just catching a lot of shots in rhythm.”
Extra pre-game shooting with assistant coach Lindsey Hunter helped.
“Today I tried to make five in a row before I left a spot,” Conner said. “Maybe I’ll do that more often. I came in this morning a little before shoot-around and I stayed 20 or 30 minutes after practice and just shot.”
The better Conner shoots, the smoother the UB offense runs.
“Willie’s a player who really opens up the floor and makes my job a lot easier,” said guard C.J. Massinburg. “Let’s say I’m dribbling from the top and he’s hit three threes. His man is probably not going to help off of Willie, and that leaves driving gaps open for me and for others. He definitely stretches out the floor.”
Conner was recruited to UB by assistant coach Bryan Hodgson out of Odessa Community College in Texas. Hodgson had coached against him while working for rival Midland College.
It took a little time for Conner to adjust last season. He was only shooting 26 percent from three-point range the first 11 games.
“Coach Oats kept telling me calm down,” Conner said. “I went home on break in December, and my family all told me just play and have fun. That’s when I took off.”
Conner shot 36.7 percent from three-point range the last 24 games, and he was 9 of 23 behind the arc in the MAC Tournament.
“This year I can be better,” Conner said. “Now I know where most of my shots come from in our offense.”
Conner’s value goes beyond shooting. He usually defends the opponents' top perimeter scoring threat, and he made the MAC all-defensive team last year.
“He’s a tough kid who really guards and he makes open shots, but he’s also vocal,” Oats said. “He’s not afraid to say something to guys. And he plays hard all the time. He typically leads us in minutes played just because he plays so hard and you’ve got to keep him out there for the defensive end. . . . With the way college basketball is, if your seniors don’t lead, you’re just not very good.”
Conner’s long beard makes him look like the team’s wise man and made him an early favorite of UB’s True Blue student section, which waves “Fear the Beard” signs. Conner says he did not copy the look of NBA star James Harden.
“I had it at Odessa, and my mom made me cut it,” he said. “She said, ‘What are you doing with all that stuff on your face? You go cut that right now.’ So when I left home to go back to school, I’m like, I’m never cutting my beard again.’”
UB (5-5) never trailed against its Baltimore, Md., opponent, which dropped to 0-12. The Bulls got 15 points from Massinburg and an impressive showing from freshman forward Quate McKinzie, who had six points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
The Bulls are off until Saturday, when they meet Canisius in the Big 4 Classic at KeyBank Center.