The University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach Jim Whitesell didn’t tinker with his starting lineup for the first 20 games of the season. But with the Bulls at a crossroads as it begins February, he made a noticeable change last week.
In a 77-74 win Jan. 29 at Akron, Whitesell swapped Josh Mballa for Brock Bertram as the Bulls’ starter at forward/center. Mballa had started UB's first 20 games. Bertram, meanwhile, missed UB's 13 nonconference games because of a stress fracture in his left foot, and the 6-foot-11-inch junior averaged 7.2 minutes in his first seven games.
It seems an unusual change given the Bulls (14-9, 5-5 Mid-American Conference) have lost three of their last four games. But the Bulls stuck with the starting lineup of forwards Bertram and Jeenathan Williams, and guards Jayvon Graves, Davonta Jordan and Antwain Johnson in a 78-77 Friday loss to Bowling Green, and in a 66-62 Tuesday loss at Eastern Michigan.
“Josh has played well and Brock’s gotten a good role for us,” Whitesell said after the Bowling Green game. “We got off to a great start, again. Brock had seven rebounds and played pretty good ball-screen defense. It gives us a good matchup guy there.
“Josh comes in and he’s a guy that can give us points. He had 15 rebounds out of that position, and we had (52) rebounds. That helps our defense, tremendously. Josh had 12 points off the bench, and you have someone who can come off the bench and give us some pop there.”
Mballa is making the most of the switch. He has back-to-back-to-back double-doubles coming off the bench: 13 points and 17 rebounds at Akron, 12 points and 15 rebounds against Bowling Green and 16 points and 11 rebounds at Eastern Michigan.
It’s also helping the bench. Prior to the win at Akron, the Bulls averaged 18.15 points off the bench. In the last three games, UB has averaged 27 points off the bench, including 22 against Bowling Green and 36 against Eastern Michigan.
But given that UB lost back-to-back games for the the second time this season, one has to wonder if another lineup shuffle is on the horizon, or if the Bulls will keep their new starting five as they aim to rise in the MAC East Division.
UB is fourth in the East and hosts Central Michigan at 9 p.m. Friday at Alumni Arena. The Chippewas (13-8, 6-2) lead the MAC West Division and upset MAC East leader Bowling Green, 92-82, on Tuesday in Mount Pleasant, Mich.
3X3 tournament watch list
UB guard Davonta Jordan, Canisius guard Malik Johnson and Niagara guard James Towns were named to the Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship Midseason Watch List. The 320-player watch list – 10 players from each of the 32 Division I conferences – was announced Tuesday.
There will be 128 seniors from the 32 Division I conferences selected to play on four-player teams that represent each conference in the national championship, scheduled for April 3-5 in Atlanta. Teams will compete for $150,000, with $100,000 going to the tournament champions. The winning team will earn an automatic berth to the 2020 USA Basketball 3x3 Open National Championship in May.
On the air
The Canisius men will be on national television when they play Feb. 21 at Quinnipiac. ESPNU will televise the game, which is a 7 p.m. tipoff in Hamden, Conn. The game was originally scheduled to be aired on one of ESPN’s online platforms.
It’s the ninth time in the four seasons that Canisius has appeared in a nationally televised game on an ESPN network.
The Golden Griffins (9-13, 4-7) play at 7 p.m. Friday at Rider.
This week’s must-see game
UB women vs. Toledo, 2 p.m., Saturday, Alumni Arena: The Bulls (13-7, 4-5 Mid-American Conference) look to rebound from a pair of losses when they host the Rockets in a MAC crossover game.
UB freshman guard Dyaisha Fair is fourth in the nation in scoring (22.5 points per game), while senior guard Theresa Onwuka averages 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds and freshman center Elea Gaba has chipped in 6.1 points per game. The Bulls, however, have lost three of their last four games and began Wednesday third in the MAC East behind first-place Ohio and Kent State.
The Rockets handed the Bulls their biggest margin of defeat in a MAC game this season. The Bulls opened 1-for-14 from the floor in a 71-59 loss on Jan. 8 at Savage Arena.