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Jayvon Graves, Josh Mballa lead UB men's basketball into MAC schedule

The University at Buffalo men’s basketball team seems to have shored up some of its shortcomings as it prepares to start its Mid-American Conference schedule.

Jayvon Graves has found his stride and Josh Mballa is creating a strong inside presence for the Bulls (9-5). Graves, a junior guard, is averaging 17.4 points per game and has scored in double figures in all but one game this season, while Mballa, a sophomore forward, entered Thursday ranked fifth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (4.23).

UB also is fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding (14.92), a unique statistic for a team that stakes its identity on defense.

But first-year Bulls coach Jim Whitesell still has a few critiques of his team, which opens MAC play at 2 p.m. Saturday against Northern Illinois at Alumni Arena.

Whitesell liked the resiliency of his team, which was down by as many as 12 points in the first half of an 84-79 win Monday against St. Bonaventure.

But, he said after the win, the Bulls need a better sense of awareness and need to improve their ball protection, particularly in the late goings of a game. That was evident when the Bulls allowed Bona to cut its lead to five points with less than a minute left, and then the Bonnies made it a one-possession game in the final six seconds.

“Understanding time and score, that’s got to improve, immediately,” Whitesell said.

He's encouraged by the Bulls' defensive play against Bona, particularly the last 30 minutes, but he wants the Bulls to continue to grow in the area of help defense.

“Bona is really hard to guard,” Whitesell said. “They can break you down. What we had trouble with was, if we took away one of their actions, they come back at you. That’s one of the things we learned a little bit on the fly.”

Griffs host Manhattan

Canisius (5-7) got a jump on its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule prior to the new year, falling 73-72 to Siena on Dec. 23 in Albany. After an 87-79 loss Monday at Pitt, Canisius continues its conference schedule at 7 p.m. Friday against Manhattan at the Koessler Athletic Center.

Majesty Brandon scored a team-high 20 points and was one of five players to score in double figures against Pitt, a team that contested the Griffs with their zone defense. Point guard Malik Johnson enters the conference schedule as the MAAC leader in assists (5.7 per game) and steals (2.7 per game) and is second in the MAAC in minutes played (37.8 per game).

Johnson is the only player on Canisius’ roster with substantial experience, but forwards Jacco Fritz, a freshman, and Corey Brown, a graduate transfer, have emerged in similar leadership roles.

“Corey Brown has had some injuries and has been unavailable, but he’s finally back for us and he’s a senior, but his first year with us,” Griffs coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We don’t have a lot of guys who are seasoned veterans, other than Malik. I’d say a lot does fall on Malik, and he embraces the challenge.”

Canisius leads the MAAC in field goal percentage (44.9 percent), is tied with Quinnipiac for second in assists (14.3 per game) and is second in steals per game (8.5). The Griffs, however, are second-to-last in the 11-team conference in defensive rebounds (23).

Niagara opens MAAC slate

Niagara (2-9) opens its MAAC schedule at 7 p.m. Friday against Fairfield at the Gallagher Center and continues to be a work in progress under first-year coach Greg Paulus after opening the season 0-5.

James Towns leads Niagara in scoring and is eighth in the MAAC with 14.7 points per game. The Purple Eagles have gotten inside reinforcement from Greg Kuakumensah and Nicholas Kratholm following the loss of freshman forward Noah Waterman, who sustained an ankle injury in a 93-82 overtime win Dec. 8 against Colgate.

After a 71-57 loss last weekend at Syracuse, Paulus pointed out areas of improvement – ball control and Niagara’s assist-to-turnover ratio.

“This is the sixth straight game we’ve had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio,” said Paulus, whose team averaged 14 assists and nine turnovers in that six-game stretch. “For us, taking care of the basketball is something that helps our offense. It gives us opportunities, it’s something that helps our transition ‘D’ and that’s something that, going forward, if we can better take care of the ball, we’ll like what we can get on the offensive side.”

Bona aims to bounce back in A-10

St. Bonaventure (8-5) opens its Atlantic 10 schedule at 4 p.m. Sunday at George Washington, but it ended its nonconference schedule on a down note in a loss Monday at UB. The Bonnies lost a 12-point lead to the Bulls, who ended Bona’s seven-game win streak.

UB neutralized center Osun Osunniyi, who took two fouls in the first two minutes against the Bulls, then took his third foul less than a minute into the second half.

The Bonnies didn’t have a problem producing points in the paint,where it outscored UB 52-32, even with Osunniyi in foul trouble. They’ve outscored teams 294-202 in the paint over their last nine games. But the Bonnies couldn’t handle Mballa’s inside presence – he finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds – and Bona allowed the Bulls too many fast-break opportunities (29).

“When we’re 0-3 and 1-4 and we were banged up, if someone said we would be 8-5, I would have taken it,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said Monday. “But you look back, I’m a firm believer that your record is what it is. You’re going to win some you’re not supposed to win, and you’re going to lose some you’re not supposed to lose. Eight and five is better than being 5-8, I guess. Now, it’s our second season. We have 18 Atlantic 10 games, starting Sunday.”

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