Alex: There are the obvious story lines that have been repeated all summer long with this Buffalo squad. Now that you've finally had an opportunity to see this team play, what's your early assessment of the Buffalo Bulls under Nate Oates?
Gritz: Oats at his inaugural press conference promised to not change much. He wasn't able to keep many guys around except the seniors and Lamonte Bearden, but he's stayed true to his word. This team, still finding chemistry together, isn't as unabashedly flashy as last year's group, but like they like to move in transition, they like to hound the perimeter on defense, and they like to get to the rim. On a bigger scale, we're satisfied with the work so far. There were no surprises in the W/L column in out of conference play, even if the team was a bit up and down. The last three games have been a much more cohesive and offensively dangerous team that right now include two strong showings against some of the better teams in the conference, so we're cautiously optimistic.
Alex: Lamonte Bearden's the team's leading scorer. What does he do well, and what is he just okay at?
Gritz: Lamonte will get the ball into the lane time and time again. He is not at all an outside shooter. On the scoresheet, that's your whole story. But his bigger impact, as it was last year in a futile Freshman of the Year campaign, is on the rest of the offense. If he's getting the ball into the lane with passes in addition to his own drives, and if he sometimes recognizes and passes to open shooters on the perimeter as the defense collapses to him, he can be the most deadly player on UB's roster. If he's forcing shots up while taking on a forward and two or three help defenders in the lane, he might score 17, make the #SCTopTen with a circus shot, and earn five trips to the line, but he'll have slowed down Buffalo's biggest offensive strength in their diversity.
Alex: The Bulls are coming off of a big win over Kent State. Willie Connor, good transfer guard for your team, put up 22 points and Jimmy Hall limited to 10. Tell me what went on there.
Gritz: It's looking more and more like an OOC-ending win over Delaware was the turning point for this team, and it's all about Conner, who is relying less on a surprisingly inconsistent three ball and bringing a high-motor, well-rounded offensive energy to the Bulls attack. He's got deceiving size for a two guard and can score in so many different ways.
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Hall, well I'm still kind of dumbfounded by how little of a role he played. Of those 10, eight came in the first half and the last two came in garbage time. UB's thin (with Raheem Johnson lost for the year) post defense has held up extremely well against Akron and Kent's experienced forward groups, and Ikenna Smart seems to be improving week over week. Neither of the NE Ohio teams went after UB in the lane early enough to get forwards into foul trouble, but earlier in the year we saw that frequently.
Alex: What's the quickest way to defuse this Bulls team?
Gritz: Force poor decisions on offense. Everything falls apart when Bearden isn't passing out of a crowded lane or when the team settles for three point attempts with 16 seconds left on the shot clock. If UB has trouble moving the ball and moving off the ball in the half-court, they're going to to turn into rushed outside shots and wild desperate drives through the lane
Alex: It's January, but I'll ask it anyways: what are the odds of UB making a repeat at the MAC title in Cleveland?
Gritz: It'd certainly be irresponsible to consider them favorites, but the first two MAC games have been much more positive than I expected. Perfect distribution among 12 teams would be 8%; I'll say UB's chances are 12% right now - about 1 in 8.
Alex: Prediction, por favor.
Gritz: Kent State was this team's first road win of the season, but EMU's home record is less impressive to me when I see the non-D1 opponents. Raven Lee is starting again? EMU 85, Buffalo 79