By Matt Parrino
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — AMHERST — Before a pivotal early-season Mid-American Conference showdown with rival Kent State Saturday night, University at Buffalo men’s basketball head coach Bobby Hurley was concerned about his team’s “psyche.”
“Coming off the loss and the way we lost at Toledo (on Wednesday), I was concerned (about our) confidence and the emotional drain a game like that takes out of you,” said Hurley, referring to UB’s two-point loss to the Rockets on a buzzer beater as time expired three days prior.
The Bulls, a team packed with veteran leadership, didn’t seem fazed against the Golden Flashes, overcoming a sluggish first half en route to a dominant 71-60 win over Kent State. That’s UB’s fifth win in their last six meetings against Kent State at Alumni Arena. The Bulls remain perfect at home on the season at 8-0.
I had two questions going into this season as pertains to the Bulls under Hurley: what kind of identity would a team traditionally known for rebounding and defense take on, and will there be an adjustment period for players and a brand new coaching staff to get to know each other.
UB’s leading scorer and rebounder Javon McCrea said the Bulls are still trying to figure out what kind of team they are going to be.
“We can play so many styles of basketball, we’re so versatile,” McCrea said. “We just want to get up into people and defend them and get out into transition as well.”
As far as my second question, if there was an adjustment period, it’s over.
The Bulls are starting to function as a well-oiled machine, winning five of their last six, including a 3-1 start in conference play. They have a little bit of everything: shooting, rebounding, speed and, maybe most important, defense.
The Bulls are among the top teams in the nation in three-point defense, holding opponents to an impressive 20 percent from beyond the arc.
The team takes on its defensive identity from senior point Jarod Oldham, who Hurley called one of the best defenders he’s been around in college basketball.
“There’s no one that I’ve been around that pressures the ball as well as Jarod Oldham, that I’ve seen in college basketball or had a chance to work with. That does wonders for your team and the whole defense,” Hurley said. “The guys are understanding the value of guarding at a very high level, what it means to winning and what it means to get a chance to play out in the open court and in transition.”
McCrea is in the top three in scoring, rebounding and blocks in the MAC, and is the only active NCAA Division I player with 1,600 points, 800 rebounds and 200 blocks for a career. The senior gets double and triple teams on a nightly basis, but Hurley has been creative in finding ways to make teams pay.
Local product Will Regan scored a regular season career-best 25 points against Kent State and brought down 10 rebounds to give him a double-double against Kent. McCrea, being the excellent passer he is, recorded five assists in the game and found Regan on several occasions for big shots.
Regan said life is easy sometimes because of how much attention McCrea garners. “For me, there is an opportunity every night to go off when you play with Javon,” he said.
McCrea and Regan have known each other since high school and have developed a nice on-court chemistry.
“They have a good feel for each other and playing off each other,” Hurley said. “The time they’ve spent together over the years, you can see that where they just have a feel for where they are on the floor. Javon didn’t have a huge scoring night but he was great passing with five assists, which was huge. He’s an unselfish guy, he’s about winning.
“It was Will’s night offensively and I know he’s capable of having a night like that. It’s nice to have players like Will and Javon who are so productive for you.”
How the Bulls will fare down the stretch in MAC play remains to be seen, but optimism abounds across UB’s campus — and rightfully so. The Bulls are starting to put everything together on the court, and with strong leadership and chemistry, this could be the year UB finally breaks through to make it to the NCAA tournament.
And that’s what McCrea and his teammates expect to do — win.
“When I woke up this morning I sent the whole team a text, ‘You know what happened on Wednesday night (against Toledo), we have to come out and perform.’ And that’s what happened,” he said.
Matt Parrino is the Sports Editor of the Tonawanda News, part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s family of publications. Follow him @MattParrino on Twitter.