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By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com
 

Reggie Witherspoon is a Buffalo guy.

Grew up there, coached high school basketball there and coached junior college basketball there. So he knew what he was getting into when he took the coaching job at the University at Buffalo -- first on an interim basis in the middle of the 1999-2000 season, and then permanently.

He knew the history of basketball at the State University of New York campus. He knew that the suburban school better known simply as UB had never had any sustained success. It never has had a 20-win season. Not in Division III, not since joining Division I in the early '90s -- and especially not since joining the Mid-American Conference in 1998.

The program wasn't invisible in Buffalo, but the state-school Bulls clearly lagged behind the interest in fellow western New York schools St. Bonaventure, Canisius and Niagara (all private). Tickets at UB's Alumni Arena were rarely at a premium. Basketball people Witherspoon knew and respected told him Buffalo never could be a winner.

All of that helps explain why this is Buffalo's most anticipated hoops season ever. Coming off a 17-12 season (11-7 in the MAC), the Bulls return all five starters and have been dubbed the favorite in the conference's East Division.

Witherspoon, last season's MAC coach of the year, doesn't put a lot of stock in the predictions. After all, his team was picked to finish last a year ago. He does, however, sense the buzz around the program.

"I do think it is meaningful for our students and the people in Western New York," Witherspoon said. "There's a lot of excitement on our campus."

For good reason. Because while athletic directors everywhere love to talk about their great Olympic sports programs or how exciting that field hockey or cross-country victory was, they're pretty much blowing smoke. With a few exceptions nationally, the reality is that there are only two sports that matter: Football and men's basketball.

And at UB -- a school that is academically very strong -- those two sports haven't provided much excitement since the school joined the MAC. The Bulls football team has been a traditional doormat, compiling an 8-57 record since the start of the 1999 season. Prior to last season, the struggles of the men's basketball team had been nearly as bad. In Buffalo's first five years in the MAC, it had an overall record of 31-112 and went 15-75 in conference play.

When Witherspoon took over the Bulls program in mid-season, he knew the job would be difficult. His predecessor, Tim Cohane, was fired after being accused of NCAA violations. After three days of practice, Witherspoon coached his first game -- against a North Carolina team that would eventually reach the Final Four. The program later was penalized by the NCAA and had practice time and scholarships reduced.

The penalties led to losses in the short term, but it also allowed Witherspoon to sell playing time to potential recruits. During the 2002-03 season, 83 percent of UB's minutes that season were played by freshmen and sophomores.

"It's hard to win at any level with that much inexperience," Witherspoon said. "But especially in our league where everybody stays for four years."

The result was a 5-23 season in which the Bulls lost 18 of 19 games in one stretch, but those players are now much of the reason why the Bulls have gone from a team others expect to beat to one that has aspirations of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

While those players were more experienced a year ago, it didn't look as if UB was going to be much improved. After winning five of eight games to start the season, Buffalo lost six in a row, capped off by a 12-point loss at Marshall in mid-January that left the Bulls at 5-9 overall and 1-5 in the MAC.

"We were in the same predicament as my sophomore year," UB point guard Turner Battle said of the swoon. "We didn't know how to win. It was frustrating, but we became closer as a team."

The Bulls turned things around three games later when they went to Ball State, one of the MAC's traditionally strong programs, and, after trailing by eight points at halftime, rallied for an 84-75 victory.

"We totally dominated," Battle said of the second-half surge.

In 20 minutes, UB went from a team that couldn't win to one that seemingly couldn't lose. The selfless Bulls ended the regular season by winning 11 of their last 13 games. And with the victories came the fans. Buffalo drew more than 6,100 fans for a 16-point victory over Kent State. The victory over Northern Illinois in the first round of the MAC tournament was a sellout.

Battle and big man Yassin Idbihi played significant roles in Buffalo's turnaround and they are much of the reason for the optimism entering this season.

Battle was considered a borderline top 100 high school player out of Kernersville, N.C. -- recruiting expert Bob Gibbons called Battle's commitment to Buffalo the steal of the millennium -- and he has lived up to the hype. The 6-3 guard, who trusted Witherspoon enough during the recruiting process to chose a program with little history over several high major programs, does a little of everything for UB. He distributes the ball, he scores when he has to and he's a leader. As a junior, Battle led the Bulls in scoring, assists and steals (14.5 ppg, 4.1 apg, 1.8 spg) while bringing a level of toughness to the floor.

"He's built differently," said Witherspoon, who recently signed a contract extension through the 2008-09 season. "He's wired a little differently than everybody else. I tell people all the time that he's going to be a CEO some day."

The 6-10 Idbihi gives Buffalo a true big man, something that is a rarity in the Mid-American Conference. While attending high school in Germany, Idbihi, a native of Morocco, e-mailed several schools in the United States.

Witherspoon and his staff got videotape of Idbihi, found out that he really was 6-10, and signed him. Since arriving in the U.S., Idbihi has worked hard at improving. He's gone from a player who was so anxious to get into his first game that he forgot to check in at the scorer's table and then was called for three travelling violations to one that is a solid inside player.

Idbihi scored in double figures six times in UB's final seven games last season and poured in a career-high 23 points against Northern Illinois. The guy who his teammates call "Yassin The Dream" has some of the stereotypical European skills as well. He passes well, he has good feet and hands and he can step outside and hit the three-point shot.

"He's come in and worked and worked and worked," Witherspoon said. "When he arrived on campus, he was 238 pounds and now he's 281."

Still, much of the strength of this Buffalo team is that it isn't about just one or two guys. Eight different players led the Bulls in scoring at least once last season. Mario Jordan, Mark Bortz, Daniel Gilbert and Calvin Cage all averaged 8.2 and 10.2 points per game.

Fan interest. A star player. A solid supporting cast. Pretty good for an impossible job.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.






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