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5 questions as Big 4 basketball teams open practices

While the men’s and women’s college basketball teams at the University at Buffalo, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure have trained throughout the summer, formal practices begin this week at the four schools and across the country.

The UB men and the Niagara men have new coaches with names familiar to local college basketball fans. St. Bonaventure will mark the program's 100th anniversary and Canisius is coming off its third winning season in the last four years.

The UB women aim to defend their MAC Tournament championship without one of their most prolific scorers.

Here are five questions in the Big 4 this season as practices open.

Will the UB men continue their success with a new coach?

“New” isn’t necessarily “new” for the Bulls, as Jim Whitesell was promoted to head coach in April after Nate Oats' departure to Alabama. Whitesell was an assistant at UB for the last four seasons, and works with a roster that’s inexperienced inside but returns guards Davonta Jordan, Jayvon Graves and Ronaldo Segu.

Whitesell plans to make minor tweaks to a system that worked for the Bulls under Oats, one that emphasizes defense, spaces the floor and relies on its guards. The Bulls also begin defense of their Mid-American Conference Tournament championship and MAC East Division title with the help of four transfers: Gabe Grant and LaQuill Hardnett will bring experienced inside presence while Antwain Johnson and David Nickelberry will compete for playing time at guard with Segu.

Bulls guard Cierra Dillard steals the ball away from Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly in a MAC tournament game (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

What will life after Cierra Dillard be like for the UB women?

Dillard led the way as UB won the MAC Tournament championship and challenged Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. There’s no way to replace Dillard, who now plays professionally in Spain. She was an Associated Press All-America honorable mention selection and finished second in the nation in scoring at 25.2 points per game in 2018-19.

But experience and depth should bode well for the Bulls, who return 11 players, including junior point guard Hanna Hall (6.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 25 steals and 101 assists), senior guard Theresa Onwuka (9.4 points), and senior forward Summer Hemphill (14.5 points, 10.3 rebounds per game). The Bulls’ inside game should become a factor as UB has eight forwards who are at least 6 feet tall.

Patrick Beilein has returned to Western New York as Niagara's new coach (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

What is the expectation for first-year Niagara coach Patrick Beilein?

The Beilein name is synonymous with basketball in Western New York, and Patrick Beilein will install a system at Niagara that’s a lot like what his father, John, implemented in 12 seasons at Michigan: a two-guard offense in which the floor is spaced and emphasizes ball-sharing and shooting.

Patrick Beilein quickly assembled a recruiting class and a staff that includes former Duke point guard Greg Paulus, but he has a challenge that might take some time: lift the Purple Eagles from the basement of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Niagara has had only one winning season since 2013, and has finished no higher than third place in the MAAC in that span. Beilein embraces the task after building winners as head coach at Division II programs West Virginia Wesleyan (2012-2014) and LeMoyne (2015-2019).

Malik Johnson and the Canisius men's basketball team reached the MAAC Tournament semifinals. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Will Canisius again make waves in the MAAC?

The Golden Griffins are looking to contend again for the MAAC title. The conference should have more parity than it did last season. Of the five MAAC teams that had overall winning records, each was only one game over .500.

Canisius was 15-17 overall, but was 11-7 in the MAAC and contended for the regular-season title. At one point last season, ESPN projected the Griffs as the MAAC champion, but their season ended with a semifinal loss to Monmouth, which opened the 2018-2019 regular season 0-12. The Griffs will try to fill the holes left by the departures of guards Takal Molson (transferred to Seton Hall) and Isaiah Reese (suspension, then turned pro), and will return guard Malik Johnson and forward Scott Hitchon. Corey Brown, a graduate transfer from Northern Arizona, should help inside.

St. Bonaventure's Kyle Lofton drives to the basket against Buddy Boeheim (left) and Jalen Carey of Syracuse. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Will St. Bonaventure contend for the Atlantic 10 title?

The Bonnies made a run to the Atlantic 10 Tournament men’s championship game in March, and celebrate their 100th anniversary as a college basketball program this season. Will the wins match the excitement and expectations that surround the program?

St. Bonaventure needs to build on its second half and postseason run last season and continue that success through a full season. Bona was 18-16 overall and 12-6 in the A10 despite a 4-10 start to the season as it dealt with injuries.

Personnel matters in that pursuit. The Bonnies lost all-conference forwards Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin to graduation, and guard Jalen Poyser transferred to McNeese State. Expect Bona’s sophomore class to contribute, led by forward/center Osun Osunniyi, who led the Atlantic 10 with 2.7 blocks per game; guard Kyle Lofton (14.6 points per game); and guard Dominic Welch. The Bonnies also should get a boost from 6-foot-8 forward Bobby Planutis, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, and guard Jaren English, who transferred from Ranger (Texas) Junior College.

Opening dates for Big 4 basketball programs

UB men: Nov. 8 vs. Dartmouth

UB women: Nov. 5 vs. Central Connecticut State

Canisius men: Nov. 9 at Brown

Canisius women: Nov. 5 at Youngstown State

Niagara men: Nov. 8 at Drexel

Niagara women: Nov. 7 at St. Bonaventure

St. Bonaventure men: Nov. 5 vs. Ohio

St. Bonaventure women: Nov. 5 vs. St. John’s

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