In spite of a rugged, and often discouraging, transition into the MAC that was compounded by NCAA probation, Buffalo and coach Reggie Witherspoon persevered.
The Bulls were rewarded last season with a 17-12 record and a trip to Cleveland, Ohio for the MAC Tournament quarterfinals. UB's administration recognized the mess Witherspoon inherited as interim head coach five games into 1999-00 and supported him through some very tough times.
The Bulls appeared to have arrived in 2001-02, Witherspoon's third season, when they finished 12-18 overall and a respectable 7-11 in the MAC. But in '02-03, when the floor dropped out from under a young team (5-23, 2-16), it didn't look good. In fact, it looked like three feet of snow on a cold January day in& well, Buffalo.
But underneath the surface of that seemingly sad season, there was meaningful growth. Tired of losing and tired of being the MAC basketball whipping boy, Buffalo pulled together an unlikely band of players, representing nine U.S. states and Morocco, and, after a slow start to last season, began to win.
Led by a tough, intelligent point guard, aptly named Turner Battle, the Bulls won their final seven games of the regular season. Starved for a winner, Buffalo's student fans the "Mighty Maniacs'' styled in their long sleeved royal blue T-shirts, chanted "Reggie" until they were hoarse. They lined up around Alumni Arena hours in advance of their first-round MAC Tournament game and then went crazy when UB dispatched Northern Illinois, the MAC's preseason favorite, 90-73. The Bulls had made it to Cleveland for the first time since the league had moved the event to Gund Arena in 2000.
What's the big deal?
Consider Buffalo's first five MAC seasons: 5-24, 5-23, 4-24, 12-18 and 5-23. That's why Witherspoon was the MAC Coach of the Year in 2004. Some may have argued Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins, and he certainly was a worthy candidate, but Witherspoon, with the deck stacked against him, had turned the league's doormat into a winner.
For Witherspoon, a native Buffalonian, this is a dream come true. His team is a legit contender for the East Division title and overall championship. No doubt, there were nights during those long bus rides east on 90, he wondered if it could ever happen.
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