Buffalo Athletics

Javon McCrea, Bobby Hurley aim to make ‘one-year run’ a successful one

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Buffalo Athletics

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

At the end of the 2011-12 season the Buffalo Bulls lost a sizable chunk of their offensive production, with MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt and guard Zach Filzen among the key contributors. So in that regard some growing pains were expected for a program that entered the 2012-13 campaign having won at least eighteen games in each of the four seasons prior (three seasons of 20 or more wins). But it wasn’t meant to be for the Bulls, who fell behind the proverbial 8-ball in non-conference play and dropped their first three conference games. The end result was a 14-20 record and a coaching change, with Bobby Hurley replacing Reggie Witherspoon.

But Hurley, in his first season as a head coach after assisting younger brother Dan at both Wagner and Rhode Island, isn’t working with an empty cupboard by any means. Four starters return, most notably a senior forward in Javon McCrea who may be one of the nation’s best. As a junior McCrea posted averages of 18.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. For his efforts McCrea was a first-team All-MAC selection, but the lack of team success has the Newark, N.Y. product hungry to put the Buffalo program back on the right track in his final season.

“When I first got here we won 20 games my freshman season and 20 games my sophomore season, so we’re not really used to having a bad season,” McCrea told NBC Sports. “Everyone’s determined and ready to show that we’re better than last year’s performance.”

McCrea reached double figures in every game with the exception of two last season, shooting 55.7% from the field despite being the focal point of opposing teams’ scouting reports every game. His best outing of the season came in a two-point overtime loss at Kent State, as McCrea accounted for 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots. Coach Hurley knew the numbers McCrea posted last season and he was able to watch some game film as well, and once individual workouts began it didn’t take long for the coach to realize what kind of talent he’d be working with this season.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Mid-American Conference Preview)

“I watched a couple games and obviously I was aware of what he had accomplished statistically; I didn’t have a very strong feel but I knew he was a good player, a first-team all-league player” noted Hurley in a phone interview with NBC Sports. “I got very excited the first couple of weeks working with him on the court, just seeing some of the stuff he was doing. As a coach, I knew I would be able to use him in many different ways and that was exciting.”

The ability to use McCrea in a variety of ways isn’t solely about his individual talents, as the Bulls return much of their production from a season ago. Junior forward Will Regan (11.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) has the ability to score both inside and out, as he shot 47.8% from the field and 41.6% from deep in his first season after transferring in from Virginia, and senior guard Jarod Oldham (10.1, 5.3, 4.4 apg) is back after playing just 11 games due to a wrist injury. In 2011-12 Oldham led the MAC in assists, dishing out 5.9 helpers per game, and his return should give the Bulls the boost they need in the backcourt.

Buffalo does lose Tony Watson II (11.3 ppg), but sophomore guard Jarryn Skeete is expected to slide into that role after averaging 7.1 points per game as a freshman. With these pieces the Bulls are well-positioned to improve their standing within the MAC, and ultimately the hope is that McCrea will be able to improve his individual standing with the team enjoying greater success as well.

“We’ve talked a lot about his future and he’s going to play beyond his last year here at Buffalo, so we just want to put him in a better position to make some things happen for himself,” said Hurley. “He’s continued to work on his mid-range jump shot out to about 17 feet, and I’m going to encourage him to shoot that ball because he’s worked really hard. It’s something we’ve discussed, adding an additional dimension to his game, and hopefully people will see that in small doses.”

CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories

For some programs the transition to a new coach and style of play can be a struggle, with the desire to put one’s stamp on the program possibly being at the expense of the holdovers. But that won’t be the case for Hurley, who wants to take full advantage of the one season he has with McCrea. And there’s no better way to show that Buffalo is back on the right track than to have McCrea enjoy even more success, because that would enable the program to enjoy more success as well. So as the coach begins writing his chapter in the Buffalo history books, the player will look to provide a fitting conclusion to his UB career by helping the team reach its goals.

“I don’t really focus on [individual accolades], I just focus on the team aspect,” said McCrea. “I feel that if we take care of the non-conference first and then focus on the MAC, then everything will be much better. If we play poorly in non-conference play like we did last year, then it can carry over.”

With perennial MAC East powers Akron and Ohio both suffering some key personnel losses, there’s an optimistic feeling in regards to Buffalo’s chances of contending. And with McCrea leading the way, the Bulls are more than capable of rebounding from last season’s disappointing outcome.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.