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MAC Men's Basketball Preview: Buffalo Bulls

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Forget what you knew about the Buffalo Bulls. There will be similarities to last year's conference championship team: Lamonte Bearden running the point, Jarryn Skeete shooting from the wing and deep elbow, and a tenacious defense looking to push the pace in transition.

Otherwise? Just six players who saw time in 2014-15 remain on the roster, and that includes 5-7 walk-on Christian Pino and Mory Diane, who played in just four games before losing his season to academic eligibility. Graduation (Xavier Ford, Will Regan), transfers (Shannon Evans, Bobby Frasco, Torian Graham), and money (Bobby Hurley, Justin Moss, in a manner of speaking) have gutted the team, not to mention incoming recruits (Nate Navigato, Maurice O'Field). Instead of an improved group thinking NCAA at-large consideration, UB is in a transition year as Nate Oats lays a new foundation.

Head Coach: Nate Oats, 1st year (0-0 overall, 0-0 MAC)

Three years ago, Oats was beginning the school year at Detroit's Romulus High, where he taught math and built a Michigan powerhouse. His Eagles would go 27-1 and win the state title that year, capping off a stellar eleven-year resume for the Wisconsin native: a 222-52 overall record, seven straight conference championships, three team top-25 national rankings (2010, 2011, 2013), and five appearances in the Michigan Class A Final Four.

Oats had been on the Hurley Brothers' radar when they started at Wagner and moved to Rhode Island, but it wasn't until he won that state championship that he made the leap to college, joining Bobby in Buffalo. In his two years as assistant, he served as UB's top recruiter, giving the Bulls a strong foothold in Detroit, Chicago, and around the Great Lakes. He hasn't slowed as the man in charge: while his first full class won't impact this season, this week's early signing period will see four players commit to UB, three of them holding three-star ratings.

He'll likely look to play the same styles and systems as his predecessor despite the turnover on his roster and is joined on his staff by former St. John's and Saint Louis assistant Jim Whitesell, former UConn and NBA star Donyell Marshall, former JUCO head man Bryan Hodgson, and former NC State star Julius Hodge.

2015-2016 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (EST) Notes
13-Nov Pitt-Bradford 9:00 Division III
16-Nov at Old Dominion 7:00 Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic
18-Nov at St. Joseph's 7:00 Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic
21-Nov vs North Carolina A&T
7:00 Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic (Uncasville, CT)
22-Nov vs Vermont/Niagara TBA Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic (Uncasville, CT)
28-Nov Canisius 2:00
2-Dec St. Bonaventure 7:00
5-Dec at Duke 5:15 ESPN2
7-Dec at Iowa State 9:00 ESPNU
12-Dec Binghamton 2:00
19-Dec Montana State 2:00
22-Dec at Virginia Commonwealth
29-Dec Delaware 7:00
5-Jan Akron 7:00
8-Jan at Kent State 7:00
9-Jan at Eastern Michigan 7:00
16-Jan Central Michigan 3:30
19-Jan at Miami
23-Jan at Western Michigan 4:30
26-Jan Ball State

30-Jan at Toledo

2-Feb at Northern Illinois 9:00
6-Feb Eastern Michigan 3:30
9-Feb Toledo 7:00
13-Feb Ohio 2:00
16-Feb at Akron
20-Feb Bowling Green 3:30
23-Feb Kent State 6:00
27-Feb at Ohio 3:30
1-Mar Miami 7:00
4-Mar at Bowling Green 7:00

UB's nonconference options were built with an at-large bid in mind: a pair of marquee road games for the RPI, as in 2014-15, and quality opponents in VCU and ODU for a better chance at a good win. With Evans, Moss, Bearden, and hyper-athletic new faces Graham and Maurice O'Field, the Bulls looked to improve.

Instead the first half of the year will provide the new look team with time to build chemistry before the new year. There are still a chunk of winnable games, and the Bulls stand a good chance of carrying a winning record into 2016.

New, but not young, faces

Oats was hired just days after Hurley left for Arizona State, but still spent most of his summer recruiting as roster losses came in waves, not just from his upperclassmen, but from his incoming recruits as well. UB added CJ Massinburg and Nikola Rakicevic late and later in the summer to build a balanced freshman class, but Oats also brought in three JUCO juniors to his junior class in David Kadiri, Willie Conner, and Blake Hamilton. With Ikenna Smart coming off a redshirt and Mory Diane academic ineligibility, the new-look Bulls at least have college experience to build on.

Frontcourt uncertainty

In Bearden and Skeete UB has a pair of guards with All-MAC potential and the capability to play 35 minutes a night. The forwards were already hit hard by graduation before Justin Moss' expulsion, and are now left with the prospect of at times playing Rodell Wigginton for extended minutes at the four.

Expect true freshman Nick Perkins (Ypsilanti, MI) to play major minutes, if not start, after a standout career at Milan High School, but beyond that the rotation is full of red flags. Senior Raheem Johnson is an athletic defender and rebounder, but has difficulty keeping out of foul trouble. Redshirt freshman Ikenna Smart is similarly athletic but in only his fourth year of organized basketball, and all that's left is junior JUCO transfer Kadiri.

Keep an Eye on These Three Players

You already know about Bearden and Skeete. Assume they're going to produce, because they'll have to.

Nick Perkins, F -- Perkins has been on track for big freshman minutes since signing his NLI a full year ago even before the forward depth cleared out. A big-bodied power forward, his shooting range extends further than either of Buffalo's last two big men in Justin Moss and Javon McCrea, and he moves well for his size. Already 225 pounds, with added strength he could fill up the lane on his own.

Rodell Wigginton, G/F -- A former Ohio commit out of junior college, Wigginton was a Swiss Army knife as a junior, scoring seven points and pulling down four rebounds per game in 22 minutes while playing anywhere from the two-guard to forward alongside Moss. He'll do more of the same with more minutes this season, but you're most likely to notice him on the defensive perimeter, where he and Skeete have developed strong chemistry, freeing up Bearden to go for steals.

Willie Conner, G and Nikola Rakicevic, G -- A JUCO transfer and late addition to the freshman class, Conner and Rakicevic are the likely second options on the perimeter after Skeete. Willie hit 43% of his three-pointers last season, while Nikola offers a more well-rounded Euro game that saw him share all-tournament honors with Americans and Spaniards in the FIBA U-17 World Championships a few years ago.

Final Analysis

You could see in Bobby Hurley's first year the groundwork for a quick turnaround: He brought in a couple of JUCO guys and a small freshman class before a larger freshman class and a few more JUCOs had his team ready to compete in just his second season, even without Javon McCrea. In between, the Bulls won their first outright MAC East title.

Oats is losing more than Hurley did in either year, but the similarities are there. Three incoming JUCO transfers help with scholarship distribution and next year's freshman class is likely the most highly-regarded, top to bottom, in program history. In the meantime, if the group can find chemistry early, the adjustment phase could be short.

It would be a surprise, but not out of the question, to see Buffalo in the mix for a bye this season on the heels of Bearden, Skeete, and a surprise or two. It's more likely, however, that UB is closer to .500 - overall and in the MAC - as they lay new groundwork for the program.