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Big 4 men's basketball preview: Who will emerge?

Buffalo Bulls

Arena: Alumni Arena, 175 Webster Road, Amherst (6,783 capacity)

Tickets: ubbulls.com/tickets

Coach: Jim Whitesell (0-0, first season; 387-301, 25th season overall)

Last season’s record: 32-4, 16-2 MAC

Key returnees (last season’s stats): 6-foot-2-inch Sr. G Davonta Jordan 7.4 ppg., 3.2 rpg., 3.6 apg.; 6-foot-3-inch Jr. G Jayvon Graves, 9.7 ppg., 4.2 rpg.; 6-foot-5-inch So. F Jeenathan Williams 3.2 ppg., 1.7 rpg.; 6-foot So. G Ronaldo Segu 2.1 ppg.

Key losses: G CJ Massinburg 18.2 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 3 asp.; G Jeremy Harris 14 ppg., 6.2 rpg., 3 asp.; F Nick Perkins 14.7 ppg., 7.4 rpg.; G Dontay Caruthers 8.6 ppg., 3.4 rpg., 2.8 apg.

Key newcomers: 6-foot-7-inch Jr. G/F David Nickelberry; 6-foot Fr. F Laquill Hardnett; 6-foot-7-inch So. F Josh Mballa; 6-foot-2-inch Sr. G Antwain Johnson; 6-foot-6-inch Sr. F Gabe Grant

Outlook: Jim Whitesell takes over a program that was ranked in the AP Top 25 for most of last season and has reached the NCAA second round in each of the last two seasons. Gone are All-MAC performers CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris. Davonta Jordan, who was named to the All-MAC defensive team last season, returns to lead a new, but experienced cast.

Jayvon Graves was picked as a preseason All-MAC West Division first-team player and will play a significant role for the Bulls. Whitesell has five transfers at his disposal and melding them into a cohesive unit will be the challenge.

Season-defining stretch: UB was picked to finish second in the MAC East behind Bowling Green, while Toledo was tabbed to win the West. The Bulls play the Rockets just once during the regular season, on Feb. 15. UB hosts Bowling Green on Jan. 31 then gets two very winnable games against Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. But then come games at Toledo and at home against Ball State on Feb. 18. The Bulls need to win four of five in this stretch if they want to win the East Division.

What the coach said: “We’d like to play similar. There’s going to be changes because of what personnel is on the floor, but we want to keep the same system. It’s more about multiple efforts. Blue-collar. Playing great defense. We want to be a transition team that goes up and down. I don’t know if we’ll shoot as many 3-pointers, just because the 3-point line has been moved back. We’ve got good 3-point shooters, but it’s a little more of a distance out there.”

Prediction: 22-9, 13-5 MAC

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Canisius Golden Griffins

Arena: Koessler Athletic Center, 1829 Main St., Buffalo (2,196 capacity)

Tickets: gogriffs.com

Coach: Reggie Witherspoon (54-45, fourth season; 252-273, 18th season overall)

Last season’s record: 15-17, 11-7 MAAC

Key returnees (last season’s stats): 5-foot-10-inch Sr. G Malik Johnson 9.6 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 4.8 apg.; 6-foot-8-inch Jr. F Scott Hitchon 8.6 ppg., 2.6 rpg., .500 FG percentage; 6-foot-7-inch Jr. F Jalanni White 5.89 ppg., 2.7 rpg.

Key losses: G Isaiah Reese 11.8 ppg., 5.9 rpg., 4.4 apg., 1.6 spg.; G Takal Molson 16.9 ppg., 5.4 rpg., 2 apg.; G Jonathan Sanks 7.4 ppg., 2.4 rpg.

Key newcomers: 6-foot-8-inch Sr. F Corey Brown; 6-foot Jr. G Majesty Brandon; 6-foot-4-inch Fr. G Armon Harried; 6-foot-10-inch Fr. C Jacco Fritz

Outlook: Malik Johnson was the only Canisius player to be named preseason All-MAAC. The senior will team up with Scott Hitchon and Jalanni White to form a solid nucleus. All three started every game last season. Takal Molson transferred to Seton Hall and Isaiah Reese left the program after a tumultuous season. Corey Brown is the third graduate transfer in Canisius program history. The 6-foot-8-inch forward averaged just 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds per game at Northern Arizona. Majesty Brandon is a transfer who averaged 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game for Monroe Community College.

Season-defining stretch: The Griffs play four out of five games on the road from Feb. 7-23. That includes trips to play Rider, Niagara, Quinnipiac and Manhattan. The lone home game during the stretch is against Monmouth. If Canisius has hopes of competing in the MAAC Tournament, it must successfully navigate this tough stretch.

What the coach said: “Malik has been a tremendous leader for us since his first practice as a college player. He’s a hard worker and he’s extremely competitive. He has a very high basketball IQ. I think he understands the struggle and embraces the challenges that are before him. We’re looking forward to him. Half of his teammates are new. They are waiting on his word and his wisdom, and it gives him a pretty big platform for his leadership.”

Prediction: 12-19, 9-11 MAAC

•••

Niagara Purple Eagles

Arena: The Gallagher Center, 2009 Niagara University, Lewiston (2,400 capacity)

Tickets: purpleeagles.com

Coach: Greg Paulus (0-0, first season)

Last season’s record: 13-19, 6-12 MAAC

Key returnees (last season’s stats): 5-foot-10-inch Sr. G James Towns 10.5 ppg., 3.5 rpg., 3.4 apg.; 6-foot-2-inch So. G Raheem Solomon 7.8 ppg., 2.3 rpg.; 6-foot-1-inch So. G Marcus Hammond 5.8 ppg., 2 rpg.

Key losses: F Marvin Prochet 15.7 ppg., 7.3 rpg.; F Dominic Robb 10.6 ppg., 4.8 rpg., 2.2 bpg.; G Chris Barton 6.6 ppg., 2.8 rpg.; Kaleaf Tate 6.9 ppg., 3.1 rpg.

Key newcomers: 5-foot-10-inch Jr. G Justin Roberts; 6-foot-6-inch Jr. F Kobi Nwandu; 6-foot-6-inch Jr. F Italo Cicotti; 5-foot-9-inch So. G Shandon Brown

Outlook: Niagara has a new coach, but it isn’t the one it hired eight months ago. Greg Paulus takes over the rebuilding project after Patrick Beilein unexpectedly resigned two weeks ago. Whether Paulus rolls with Beilein’s scheme, inserts his own or uses a mashup between the two remains to be seen. In any case, Paulus gets a crack to show what he can do as the head coach of a program, even if on an interim basis. The Purple Eagles have a lot of new players, including four transfers. James Towns started 28 of 32 games last season. Raheem Solomon and Marcus Hammond each started four. With so few returnees, it may make it easier for Paulus to institute his philosophy and system. Shandon Brown played in 29 games as a freshman at George Washington, where Paulus was an assistant coach last season.

Season-defining stretch: As odd as it might sound, Niagara’s first three games could dictate the remainder of the season. All three games are on the road as part of the Garden State Hardwood Classic and takes the Purple Eagles to Philadelphia (Drexel), Piscataway, N.J. (Rutgers), and Nacogdoches, Texas (Stephen F. Austin). In fact, Niagara has just two home games, and nine on the road, before January. Paulus and crew will get to know each other pretty well, and quickly, as they embark on a challenging season.

What the coach said: “I think our goals are to continue to build our habits on a daily basis. That’s something we have focused on since we’ve arrived here and that’s something we will continue to emphasize on a daily basis. We have a saying, ‘We want to be better today than we were yesterday,’ and that is something we are working towards.”

Prediction: 7-24, 5-15 MAAC

•••

St. Bonaventure Bonnies

Arena: Reilly Center, 3261 West State Road, St. Bonaventure (5,840 capacity)

Tickets: gobonnies.sbu.com/tickets

Coach: Mark Schmidt (210-168, 13th season; 292-258, 19th season overall)

Last season’s record: 18-16, 12-6 A10

Key returnees (last season’s stats): 6-foot-3-inch So. G Kyle Lofton 14.4 ppg., 3.7 apg., 1.4 spg., .838 FT percentage; 6-foot-5-inch So. G Dominick Welch 7.5 ppg., 4.4 rpg., 1.3 apg., .361 3-pt FG percentage; 6-foot-10-inch So. F/C Osun Osunniyi 7.5 ppg., 7.6 rpg., 2.6 bpg, .571 FG percentage.

Key losses: F Courtney Stockard 15.3 ppg., 5.6 rpg., 3.6 apg., 1.3 spg.; F LaDarien Griffin 10.7 ppg., 6.2 rpg.; G Jalen Poyser 9.6 ppg.

Key newcomers: 6-foot-8-inch Fr. F Robert Carpenter; 6-foot-4-inch Jr. G Matt Johnson; 6-foot-4-inch So. G Jaren English; 6-foot-8-inch So. F Bobby Planutis

Outlook: The Bonnies return just one senior from a team that reached the Atlantic 10 championship game last season, but don’t be fooled. Coach Mark Schmidt had a young squad and returns three sophomores who made big impacts. Kyle Lofton was named to the A-10 All-Rookie team after finishing 14th in the conference in scoring and eighth in assists. Dominic Welch and Osun Osunniyi tied for fifth on the team in scoring last season. Welch is a threat from the outside while Osunniyi does his damage inside. Osunniyi averaged a whopping 2.6 blocks per game last season, good for sixth in the nation. Matt Johnson is a junior-college transfer who averaged 14.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game for Howard College. This could be a big year for a program celebrating its 100th season.

Season-defining stretch: A three-game stretch in January may not seem like much, but when you’re picked to finish fifth in the conference and play in succession possibly three of the four teams ahead of you, it becomes a big deal. Bona plays A-10 favorite VCU in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 18, then will visit Dayton on Jan. 22. A home game against Rhode Island on Jan. 25 caps the stretch. The danger, of course, is if Bona wins all three games, will it let down against Fordham in the following contest?

What the coach said: “Dom, Kyle and Osun, they got to take that next step. Their leadership has to be that much better. We relied last year on Courtney and LaDarien. Now we’ve got 19-year-old leaders, which is a concern. I think you can talk to any coach in the country you want and they’ll want senior leadership, not sophomore leadership. These three guys are really talented. They’ve been through it last year. ... They’re experienced and we’re going to rely on those guys to lead us.”

Prediction: 24-7, 13-5 A-10

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