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2016-17 MAC Basketball Preview: Buffalo Bulls

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament-Akron vs Buffalo Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason transition is the name of the game for Buffalo on the hardwood since Reggie Witherspoon left the program, but it hasn’t slowed the Bulls down as the program won their first MAC Championship in 2015 in their first year without all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea, and then repeated in 2016 without potential MAC Players of the Year Justin Moss and Shannon Evans.

So MAC fans might be wise to not celebrate Lamonte Bearden’s summer departure. And even if they’re playing with fire, UB brings to 2016-17 the oldest group they’ve had since McCrea’s senior year. even if none of the program’s upperclassmen played in Amherst as freshmen.

In Nate Oats’ — which, by the way, his wife Crystal is currently cancer-free — second season at the helm, it’s hard to pick out a star player. CJ Massinburg is the high-scoring guard, a gem of the 2015 recruiting class. JUCO transfers Blake Hamilton and Willie Conner bring versatility, and sophomore forward Nick Perkins has had a year of polish that should help UB find consistency in the frontcourt.

Joining Conner and Hamilton in the all-JUCO senior class are David Kadiri and Raheem Johnson, a pair of forwards coming back from injury last year. Kadiri played in 27 games but was rumoured to be battling knee issues all season, while Johnson played only a single nonconference game after breaking a foot in the offseason.

The Bulls’ schedule doesn’t have the road games at Final Four contenders we’ve seen the last two years, but trips to Xavier, Creighton, and Pittsburgh follow the Hurley-Oats scheduling philosophy that aims for nonconference lumps to help the team gel in early February and peak at the right time. In addition to usual local rivalries Canisius, Niagara, and St. Bonaventure, UB will play Coppin State, Robert Morris, and Maine, and has a chance for a big test in Iona if the bracket shakes out right at the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving.

MAC play once again has a friendly finish for Buffalo, who will play four of their last five at home while also playing the full conference slate without any three-game road trips. They’ll catch Ball State and Central Michigan twice from the West. The tough stretch? Ohio, Kent State, Western Michigan, and Akron (along with Ball State and Miami) in 18 January days.

The likely rotation is tough to sort out, and the enigma starts with Hamilton, who has missed preseason time to a broken hand and, despite being a natural wing, is skilled enough to play and present matchup problems for opposing defenses anywhere from the point to small forward. The hand is healed much more quickly than expected, but Blake didn’t play in a close-to-the-vest exhibition win over D-II Daemen last Friday.

When healthy, Hamilton will start. CJ Massinburg will start, but the sophomore presents another snag for lineup prognostication. A natural two-guard, Massinburg looks like he’ll play substantial time at the point as Oats juggles playing his five best players and getting guys into their natural positions. Willie Conner, last year’s MAC Tournament MVP, is a dangerous perimeter threat with slashing ability.

Much like last season, UB’s questions are at forward. If Kadiri and Johnson are healthy, they will bring boosts to the offensive and defensive ends, respectively, but Ikenna Smart and Nick Perkins proved down the stretch last year that they can play big minutes if needed.

Providing bench depth is a balanced class of four freshmen and a sophomore transfer. Freshman guards Davonta Jordan and James Jones and sophomore transfer Dontay Caruthers can all do a little of everything, though Jones has looked in the offseason like the best scorer and Caruthers the best distributor.

Among the forwards, Quate McKinzie is a ferocious rebounder and the closest analogue to Perkins off the bench who will likely force Oats into some tough decisions if the older guys all play well, while Brock Bertram seems unlikely to see meaningful minutes this year.

The bottom line for the Bulls? No school has ever won three straight MAC titles, and the recipe for Buffalo is unchanged:

(1) Weather the loss of the prior year’s leading scorer
(2) Build an OOC schedule with road games against likely tournament teams
(3) Find reliable minutes and points from a newcomer or two
(4) Win a few road games in the early-mid MAC schedule
(5) Capitalize on a home-heavy finish to book a ticket straight to Cleveland