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More College Basketball News

A College Basketball Diary

By Adam Stanco

BasketballWriter@cs.com

November 25th

Buffalo Prepares to Play the Champions

 

The University of Connecticut is the defending National Champion, after claiming their second title in the last five years. They are a powerhouse in a powerhouse conference. Almost all of the current Huskies were truly la crème de la crème as prepsters -- hand picked from among the best high school players in the country. Former alums comprise a Who’s Who in professional hoops. Richard Hamilton… Caron Butler... Donyell Marshall... Ben Gordon... Emeka Okafor… Ray Allen. UConn spits out top-tier NBA talent like Willy Wonka whips up chocolate bars.

 

The University of Buffalo has never won an NCAA championship in basketball. Their conference (the MAC) is under appreciated, evidenced by their absence of teams currently ranked in the Top 25 (by comparison, the Big East boasts four). UConn won 33 games last season, just one less than UB has totaled in three years. And the last Buffalo Bull to put on an NBA uniform? Sam Pellom in 1983.

 

Connecticut hosted the season opener on November 20, yet not everyone thought this match-up would be as one-sided as Kirstie Alley on a teeter-totter. Despite the history, the Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon, his three assistants, and the team’s video coordinator all believed they could do more than compete. They truly believed they would win.

 

“It’s almost like a contender boxing in all these little arenas,” says UB assistant coach Mike Mennenga, “We’re ready to fight. We’re ready to take on the champ.”

 

Over the three days leading up to their bout with college basketball’s version of Appollo Creed, the Buffalo staff prepared like Rocky.

 

Thursday, November 18

 

7:00 am: Wake-up

 

7:45 am: Breakfast Club

Every day the entire Buffalo team eats breakfast together. In addition to the players, Witherspoon, his assistants (Mennenga, Jim “Kwitch” Kwitchoff, and Chris Hawkins) and video coordinator Stewart Kerr gather in the dining hall for what they all refer to as “Breakfast Club.” The team appears focused and none of the coaches spend time hyping the upcoming opponent because there is no need to. The players fully grasp what a victory would mean to the program.

 

If UB has one distinct advantage over UConn, it is in experience. While the Huskies lost three starters from last year’s team, Buffalo returns every single player from a season ago. During the last three seasons, many of these Bulls faced raucous crowds at Syracuse, Rutgers, Indiana, and North Carolina. They have fared well, but they have never defeated a team from a big time conference.

 

8:00 am – 9:00 am: Class

Unlike most Division 1 teams, the Bulls’ daily schedule includes a late morning practice. So when most college students are snoring off the previous night’s hangover, the Buffalo student-athletes have scheduled early classes in order to meet their requirements. The regimented schedule keeps the players focused and strong in the classroom. Two of the four current Bull seniors are set to graduate on time and the other two will graduate early.

 

10:30am – 12:45 pm: Practice

Following a week-long trend, the Thursday practice is highly spirited. Buffalo looked dismal in a scrimmage against Navy on the previous Saturday and everyone in the program took it as a wake-up call.

 

“At Monday’s practice, the guys were pumped,” says Kwitchoff. “When they came out, it almost felt like they were coming out of a tunnel for a game. They’ve kept that energy level up for the entire week. And since the staff arrived here we haven’t had a lot of truly great weeks of practice.”

 

Expectations for this Buffalo team are soaring even though the team finished just 17-12 last year. They won 12 of their last 15 games and are now one of the favorites to win the MAC and a sleeper to make noise nationally. It’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction for a staff that five years ago inherited a terrible team with little hope for the future. At the mid-major level, constructing a solid program typically takes a year or two less than an eternity. One of the main reasons Buffalo’s program has ascended with Dante Hall-like quickness is the mindset fostered during practice.

 

“We want our guys to do an extraordinary job at ordinary things,” says Witherspoon. “We stress those ordinary things in practice.”

 

Today they are force-feeding the importance of transition defense, a necessity against Connecticut. Year after year the Huskies run better than any team in the country. Even their talented post players -- Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva, and freshman Rudy Gay -- streak up the court like their jerseys are on fire. Witherspoon makes sure his players know that slowing down UConn is the key to the game.

 

“They run so well for their size. That’s what scares me. We need to make them play five-on-five against us, however it is hard to simulate the kind of speed they have in practice.”

 

But Buffalo still creatively attempts to replicate it. One of today’s drills involves five players to a side in what appears to be a regular scrimmage. Yet as soon as one team scores a sixth players jumps into the action running full-speed down the court to challenge the Bull defenders. Another drill involves adding a sixth player to the defense to emphasize pinpoint passing when UConn’s length and quickness minimizes passing lanes.

 

12:45 pm – 1:15 pm: Players lift / Coaches meet

Immediately after practice, the players start lifting weights and the coaches have a brief discussion at midcourt. During the meeting, all of the coaches discuss concerns about the recently completed practice (which surprisingly contained very few) and plan out Friday’s practice (a more detailed approach to UConn).

 

 2:00 pm: Class / Lunch

Some of the players head to class, while some have an opportunity to eat a late lunch. Keeping busy is vitally important as the game is now almost 48 hours away.

 

Since this is an open recruiting period, the free time gives the coaches an opportunity to make sure Bull recruits are aware the team is playing a high profile opponent. Cell phones appear stapled to the ears of all the assistants.

 

“We’re spreading the word to every recruit,” stresses Kwitchoff. “We’re telling everyone we know to watch the game.”

 

5:00 pm – 5:30 pm: Voluntary shooting sessions

The players who do not have prior commitments use the rare free time to practice their jump shooting. Since NCAA rules only allow for coaches to spend four hours a day and twenty hours a week with their players, voluntary skill sessions and workouts are essential to individual improvement during the season. The coaches constantly stress the importance of sharpening fundamentals.

 

“You won’t beat UConn if you don’t get yourself better first,” admits Mennenga.

 

7:00 pm – Dinner

For the remainder of the night the Buffalo players and coaches are on their own. The players grab dinner whenever they have the opportunity and, after they eat, they have no curfew.

 

The coaches allow the players freedom because on the whole Buffalo is very mature, a common theme among members of the MAC. Teams from prestigious conferences are constantly battling player turnover as underclassmen frequently jump to the NBA or transfer for more playing time. This often leaves the elite teams -- such as UConn -- talented, yet inexperienced. MAC teams almost never have that problem.

 

“The best players in our conference are typically juniors and seniors,” says Witherspoon. “The group we have now has spent three years working to get better.”

 

The effect is dramatic. Witherspoon says he and his coaching colleagues don’t just upset highly ranked opponents, they fully expect to defeat them.

 

“We talk about it when we all meet for the conference media day. We are almost never surprised when we hear about one of us beating a good team.”

 

“Look at the University of Michigan,” says Kwitchoff. “They’ve lost three games against the MAC in the last two years. The Mid-American Conference is a black and blue conference. The high majors do not want to play against the MAC.”

 

Not only do the Buffalo upperclassmen make sure the team plays efficiently, they also maintain a courteous, self-sufficient unit off the floor. This explains the lack of curfews.

 

“Coach Witherspoon is completely in touch with the pulse of the team,” says Mennenga, “and he knows that right now we don’t need to harp on staying focused and all of the other rah-rah off the court stuff. The players sharing a locker room take care of that.”

 

Friday, November 19

 

6:30 am: Wake-up

 

7:00 am: Breakfast Club

 

9:30 am: Flight departs from Buffalo

Rising early for a morning departure, the reality of a team just two years removed from a 5-23 season playing the defending NCAA champs starts to set in. Almost everyone on the team appears completely unaware of the pressure. Except, of course, for the freshmen.

 

Christian Schmidt and Wallace Hall are Buffalo’s only true freshmen and the coaching staff spent the week treating them just like everyone else. This is no surprise. Games of this magnitude flutter through Mennenga’s mind when he scouts high school players in tiny gyms and gargantuan field houses.

 

“Since we know we are going to play top teams,” he says, “there are certain questions we need to ask ourselves about the kids we think about recruiting. How mentally tough are they? What kind of kid are they? And are they going to accept being a part of a veteran group?”

 

 “When we’re on the road recruiting, we have to assess their mental preparedness to play games like this and to play in the MAC,” adds Kwitchoff.

 

Schmidt and Hall each provided all the right answers to those questions, which happens to be about the only thing they have in common.

 

Schmidt is a 6’8” forward from Chemnitz, Germany. Hall is a 6’3” guard from Detroit. While Hall grew up watching UConn on television, Schmidt is almost indifferent to the reputation of the perennial Top 10 program.

 

“Everything is new to him,” explains Kwitchoff. “No matter who we play, it is his American basketball debut. So he’s nervous for that reason, not for playing UConn.”

 

Since Hall was wearing a high school jersey during the last meaningful game he played, the coaching staff anticipated he would be jittier than a fly on caffeine leading up to the date with Connecticut. They kept waiting and waiting, but he did not seem rattled at all. His wide-eyed anxiety finally appeared midway through the flight to Hartford. 

 

“Wally came up to me quietly,” said Hawkins, “and asked, ‘How big is the arena gonna be?’”

 

2:00 pm: Check-in at hotel

If Hall needs Witherspoon to make a Norman Dale inspired “this basket is ten feet, our baskets at Hickory High are ten feet” pre-game speech, Turner Battle can play the role of Jimmy Chitwood. Battle, a 6’3” senior point guard, is quite simply the best unheralded player in all of college basketball. With an unrivaled skill set of shooting, ball handling, defense, and passing, he is excellent in every phase of the game.

 

“I would liken him to Andre Miller,” says Hawkins. “He is a very mature player and has an extremely high basketball IQ.”

 

The presence of scouts at Buffalo games enforces the fact that he has NBA level talent. Other Bulls are drawn to him as well. Even at the hotel they seem to be following him around as if he possesses a magnetic force.

 

4:30 pm – 6:30 pm: Practice

With the game now heart-poundingly close, the staff treats the final practice preciously and stresses their keys to the game. The game planning for UConn began last year, days after the two schools originally scheduled the match-up. Collectively the staff decides the best plan is to keep the game close for the first 35 minutes and go for the jugular in the final five. Teams with outstanding floor generals, such as Battle, have a tremendous edge in the final minutes of close games over those with little experience at the point. None of the Husky lead guards played significant minutes for the title team, a fact which has the UB staff foaming at the mouth. It is the one UConn weakness Buffalo feels they can exploit.

 

Buffalo then worked diligently to find a plan for staying neck and neck for the majority of the game, an alarmingly difficult task when you are facing the defending champs.  After wearing down stacks of VHS tapes and conversing with coaches who had previously confronted Jim Calhoun, they devised a “How To Hang With The Huskies” strategy guide.

 

The coaching staff narrowed everything down to three pieces of advice: box out, be transition oriented, and protect the basketball.

 

Boxing out is essential because the UConn frontline resembles a forest. Each player longer than the next.

 

“Every trip down the floor we simply must put a body on Hilton Armstrong, [Georgia Tech transfer] Ed Nelson, Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, and Adam Boone or we’ll get crushed,” says Mennenga.

 

To be transition oriented means to constantly look for fast break opportunities. In addition to Battle, UB has some speedy players – such as guard Calvin Cage and swingman Daniel Gilbert – who are counted on to fill lanes and finish with easy buckets.

 

Even though Buffalo wants to push the ball upcourt quickly, they have been drilled to proceed with caution. Battle is a genius with the ball, yet the entire team recognizes turnovers would affect the game’s outcome faster than a lip synching hoe down destroyed Ashlee Simpson’s career.

 

“Be ‘ball tough,’” says Mennenga. “That’s the saying we use every day.”

 

“All week long in practice the players were getting on each other for turning the ball over,” Hawkins adds.

 

If the players can execute those three pieces, according to the coaches, they should solve the UConn puzzle. Since this is the opening game of the season, the players were introduced to this formula a week and a half ago.

 

“We’re lucky because you usually have two days to prepare for a typical game,” says Kwitchoff.

 

Butterfly wings started flapping within the coaches today, the last day they can physically step out onto the court to convey the importance of these core elements.

 

7:00 pm: Attend women’s game

To show support for their female counterparts, the Buffalo men’s team watches the women play the famed Lady Huskies. The women lose 107-40, but a positive sign will hit the men’s team moments after the game.

 

Arriving back at the hotel in preparation of a sleepless night, the players and coaches notice a flashing score at the bottom of the ESPN ticker: Miami (Ohio) 81, Purdue 71.

 

Miami (OH) is a fellow MAC team and, following with tradition, no one on the Buffalo staff is shocked. In fact, most of them just shake their heads as if to say, “We can do the same.”

 

11:30 pm: Lights out

 

Saturday, November 20

 

8:00 am: Freshmen register for online classes

Hall and Schmidt are now just hours away from playing their very first collegiate game. They will be playing against an All-American factory, a team who knows the sensation and elation of hoisting the NCAA trophy. But before they put their squeak their sneaks, Hall and Schmidt must register for online classes.

 

Kwitchoff, Mennenga, and Hawkins wake the youngsters a half hour before their teammates and make sure the freshmen log on and sign up. Due to the basketball team’s practice times, the coaches must ensure the class schedules do not conflict. Even if it means waking the freshmen up at 7:30 am on gameday.

 

8:30 am: Wake-up for rest of the team

 

9:00 am: Breakfast Club

 

10:00 am – 10:20 am: Watch video

Despite having plenty of time to prepare, scouting any team for a season opener is difficult. Scouting UConn for the season opener is like getting good cell phone reception on an elevator. It is almost impossible.

 

Connecticut is three starters short from a season ago, two of whom (Okafor and Gordon) were lottery picks. Villanueva, Boone, and Rashad Anderson all have the talent to contend for Big East Player of the Year honors. Another one of the impact players on this year’s team is expected to be all-everything frosh forward Rudy Gay. As if they spent an off season on The Swan, the Huskies will look completely different than the last time anyone saw them.

 

Buffalo may not know how UConn will perform or what their substitution patterns will look like, but, since both squads are from the northeast, Witherspoon and company know the UConn personnel. Boone and fellow Husky forward Denham Brown were even recruited by Buffalo.

 

“They both really liked us,” says Mennenga. “Heck, Brown was even on our campus.”

 

“A lot of our guys played against their players in high school and summer leagues,” laughs Hawkins.

 

To pinpoint the style of play Connecticut will attack with, the Buffalo staff watched video of every Husky game from last season… multiple times. Kerr compiled all the crucial nuggets of footage into one twenty minute “clip tape.” The team watched the edited video on multiple occasions, but this is the last time they will see it.

 

“The tape reinforces what we’re expecting UConn to do,” says Kwitchoff.

 

The tape also reinforces the staff’s belief they can triumph over the Huskies.

 

“All of us, definitely, we are expecting to win,” assures Kerr.

 

Mennenga agrees.

 

“The reality is this is a legit winnable game and our guys are aware of that,” he says.

 

12:05 pm – 1: 00 pm: Shoot around on game court

 

3:00 pm: Pre-game meal

 

4:45 pm: Leave for game

Witherspoon, Kwitchoff, Mennenga, Hawkins, and Kerr leave for Gampel Pavilion confident and thrilled about the opportunity that lies ahead.

 

“Buffalo is ready to make the jump to be a Top 25 program and games like this will help us earn that respect,” says Mennenga.

 

Witherspoon knows respect comes from victory. And, as the start of this contest draws close, he feels victory is attainable.

 

“I really don’t know any other way to go into a game.”

 

7:00 pm: Tip-off

 

 

Postscript:

On Saturday, November 20, the University of Connecticut jumped out to a quick start against the University of Buffalo, leading 47-24 at halftime. The Huskies cruised to a 90-68 victory.

 

Rashad Anderson led all scorers with 23 points and Josh Boone finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Turner Battle led Buffalo with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals prevailing in his point guard match-up with Marcus Williams.

 

The Bulls were outrebounded 57-27, yet only turned the ball over 12 times, compared to 23 turnovers for UConn.

 

Three days later, Buffalo beat Fairleigh Dickinson 87-84 in overtime.

 

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