The University at Buffalo is the preseason favorite to win a three-team race for the Mid-American Conference East Division championship in women’s basketball.
Bulls coach Felisha Legette-Jack’s team is coming off the most successful season in school history with 29 wins, including a pair of upsets as an at-large entrant over higher-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"We embrace the moment, as we’ve done for the last six years," was Legette-Jack’s reaction to the results of the poll. "We’re not going to go too high because we were predicted (to win), but we won’t go too low.
"It’s not about our game. It’s about our story … We really love to get after something bigger than the game. Our upperclassmen have shared with our incoming seven that we don’t go too high or low, based on people’s opinions. We stay locked in."
Despite a lineup that includes two first team Preseason All-MAC East players, Cierra Dillard and Summer Hemphill, UB is only a slight favorite over Miami (Ohio) and Ohio University in the division race.
UB had 62 points in the voting, but only four of the 12 votes for first place. The Bulls edged Miami (61) by one point, and the RedHawks received five first-place votes. Ohio was a close third with 57 points and three first place votes.
Central Michigan, the defending MAC tournament champion after defeating UB in the final game in Cleveland last season, received all 12 first-place votes in the MAC West poll and had 72 points, 20 more than second-place Toledo.
Legette-Jack has some rebuilding to do even with standouts Dillard and Hemphill returning.
Three regular starters graduated, including center Cassie Oursler, the second-leading scorer on the team at 12.7 points a game, point guard Stephanie Reid, who averaged 12.1 points and had 211 assists, and Katherine Ups (7.0).
Senior guard Autumn Jones and senior forward Brittany Morrison, who averaged double-digit minutes off the bench last season, are back.
There are seven newcomers to the Bulls, some of whom will be asked to fill in around Dillard and Hemphill.
Dillard is coming off of a spectacular first season at UB. She earned second team All-MAC honors and All-Tournament honors after leading the Bulls in scoring (16.2) assists (5.2), rebounds (4-1) and steals (3.0) in the conference tournament.
She averaged 29 points in three NCAA tournament games and closed the season with a team-high 85 three-pointers and a UB record 105 steals.
Hemphill, a junior who played at Cardinal O’Hara, is coming off of a career year. She averaged 10.1 points, a team-high 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks while shooting a team-high 57.2 percent from the floor. Hemphill led the Bulls in rebounding 15 times, setting a school record for its Division I era with 23 rebounds against Ohio on Feb. 24.
Replacing Reid at point guard will be vital. Sophomore Hanna Hall, who played in 24 games and started two last season, is one candidate.
Others are the Dickson sisters from Homewood-Flossmoor High in the Chicago area. Finess Dickson is a transfer from Memphis, who is eligible this season. Her youngster sister, Aireal, is a freshman.
Two freshmen from Canada are among the 6-footers in the recruiting class. Keowa Walters, 6-3 from Toronto, Adebola Adeyeye, 6-2 from Brampton, Ont., Zena Elias, 6-2 from Clearwater, Fla., and Alexis Adams, 6-feet from Monmouth Junction, N.J., are additional candidates to take over for Oursler.
A key returnee is senior forward Courtney Wilkins, a three-point shooting specialist who averaged 8.7 points in the NCAA Tournament including a career-best 23 points against South Florida when she hit 5 of 8 from behind the arc.
The Bulls will open their season on Thursday night against Bloomsburg University in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. in Alumni Arena.
The regular-season opener will
be at Maryland Eastern Shore on Nov. 11.