Team preview: Buffalo

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

If ever a coach deserved to put his feet up take it easy for one day, it would have to be Buffalo's Reggie Witherspoon.

Having led the Bulls to 59 wins over the last three seasons, and now under contract through 2011-2012, Witherspoon certainly has earned a moment to reflect on the long, hard road taken to get to this point.

When you stop and consider the state of the program when he took over, Witherspoon is justifiably proud of his players and coaching staff.

In 1999-00, Witherspoon inherited NCAA probation and a team ill prepared for the MAC. In short, the program was a mess.

"We did take our lumps," he said. "It seemed like one restriction after another. We suffered some sanctions that aren't often suffered."

And then, after a hopeful 12-win season in 2001-02, the Bulls sank to 5-23 the next year. The lessons learned that year, however, spawned a breakthrough 17-12 campaign in 2004, followed by 23-10 in 2005, and 19-13 last winter. Witherspoon was voted MAC Coach of the Year in 2004.

The atmosphere for UB basketball has changed completely, and Witherspoon is thankful.

"Our students have given us a lot of help," he said, referring to the "Mighty Maniacs" -- decked out in their long-sleeved royal blue T-shirts -- who chant "Reggie" until they're hoarse.

Those faithful students have had more opportunities to flex their vocal chords since Witherspoon got the program rolling. Three first-round home MAC playoff games the last three years have averaged 6,736 fans. Far and away the best draw in a conference that has struggled mightily to market these campus-site tournament games. In 2006-07, all 12 MAC schools will be invited to the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Now with a seating capacity of 6,100, Alumni Arena underwent a $2 million facelift in 2004.The renovation included chair-back seating, remodeled bleacher seating, and a resurfacing of the playing floor. A new office suite for both basketball programs was completed as well. The Bulls' average attendance last season (4,280) and in 2004-05 (4,417) ranked third in the MAC.

Witherspoon may have turned in the best coaching effort of his career in 2005-06 when the Bulls raced out to an 11-1 start and received votes in both national polls. That's when MAC play began and the injuries started to mount. Starting forward Parnell Smith (ankle, shoulder), reserve center/forward Vadim Fedotov (knee) and guard Sean Smiley (knee), were lost to the team for big blocks of time.

Despite dropping seven-of-eight games from Jan. 29 until Feb. 22, the resilient Bulls marched on to the MAC Tournament quarterfinals in Cleveland a third straight year. Buffalo lost to eventual champion Kent State for a third time, 76-67, and finished 19-13. Earlier, the Golden Flashes and Bulls had staged a memorable game Feb. 15 at Alumni Arena when Kent won by 111-107 in double overtime.

In that contest, UB had a 13-point lead with 5:30 to play. Seniors Calvin Cage (18.5 ppg) and Roderick Middleton (12.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) had career highs of 37 and 30 points, respectively, in a losing effort. The third senior lost is forward Mario Jordan (10.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

Although he couldn't bring himself to say, "rebuilding," Witherspoon acknowledged the youth and inexperience of this year's squad. The Bulls have graduated so many quality seniors in recent years there is bound to be a dip.

"We'll really be young this season. It's going to be a bigger challenge this year [than it was last year]," he said.