Buffalo Prepares to Play the
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
8:00 am – 9:00 am:
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
10:30am – 12:45 pm:
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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:
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
“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
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
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:
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
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
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.
“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
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.
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
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
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.