By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Four of the University at Buffalo's top five scorers from a year ago have graduated. Three of the top four rebounders, too, not to mention the backbone of one of the nation's top defenses.
But UB fans are hopeful there won't be much of a drop off from last year's 20-win campaign, mostly because of one player who is returning.
Javon McCrea has been the Bulls' best player since he arrived on campus two years ago. Now the time has come for him to be the team's leader.
The Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in 2010, McCrea deferred to eventual MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt last season, but the 6-foot-7 forward still played his way onto the all-conference team.
This year he's been chosen as the preseason favorite for MAC Player of the Year, as well as the newly-created Big 4 Player of the Year award, and has been included on a few national lists of top players.
"I'm glad that his jersey says the same thing as mine," said guard Tony Watson, UB's lone scholarship senior. "In my opinion, he is the best player in the MAC. He has raw talent that you just don't get in most players. When he keeps his mind right and applies our theories and does what the coaches want, Javon can't be stopped."
McCrea averaged 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in his sophomore year. Most expected his numbers to be a bit better, but that was before Watt emerged as the premier player in the conference.
UB coach Reggie Witherspoon is trying to get McCrea to adopt the mindset that Watt did last season.
"More than anything, we are trying to do is accelerate his assertiveness, to think in a more dominant fashion," Witherspoon said. "He's making great strides with that."
"There are some days in practice where," Watt said, "where he practically have a team meeting trying to guard him and he still catches the ball, stays on balance, and scores over all of us."
What McCrea likely won't be able to do is become as dominant of a defender as Watt, who was three inches taller and had a goalkeeper's instincts. In many games last season, Witherspoon went with reserve forward Titus Robinson, who has also graduated, instead of McCrea in key defensive situations.
The post players who should assume most of Watt and Robinson's minutes, sophomores Will Regan and Xavier Ford, are also skilled offensive players, but not the rim protecters that their predecessors were.
"We can't replace those guys, but as a group, we can fill those shoes as much as possible," Watt said. "That athleticism and shot-blocking that Mitch and Titus brought, we don't have, so we are going to have to do things differently."
Regan, the former Western New York Player of the Year from Nichols, transferred in from Virginia next year and will start up front next to McCrea.
"His skills compliment his teammates," Witherspoon said. "We have to get him instinctive enough that he can put those skills on display."
The Bulls also need to replace the record-setting outside shooting that guard Zach Filzen provided. His starting spot will likely be taken by junior Corey Raley-Ross, a high-flying slasher who played sparingly last season. But Watson, who will back up both guard spots, is now UB's top marksman from long range.
"We all need to step up and make more shots," Watson said.
Jarod Oldham flourished on both ends of the floor as the starting point guard las season, and Witherspoon is hoping he will be even better in his junior year. Oldham and Regan were both second-team preseason all-Big 4 picks.
On the wing, junior Auraum Nuiriankh took over the starting role from Dave Barnett last year and will see his floor time rise now that Barnett has graduated. The 6-6 Nuiriankh, a converted post player who has developed his perimeter skills while at UB, was the team's leading scorer in four exhibition games against Canadian teams in August.
Hulking junior Cameron Downing will be part of the frontcourt rotation. It remains to be seen whether sophomore forward Raphael Thomas-Edwards can be a contributor. Same thing for freshmen Jarryn Skeete, a point guard, and Andre McPhail, a power forward, though both pass the eye test in practice. The other freshman, local product Stan Wier, is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and doubtful to be a factor this season.
After opening up at home today against Princeton, the Bulls will be challenged early and often by a schedule that includes just 13 home dates and trips to face Florida State, Washington State and Tulsa.
"The competition is good and the travel is challenging," Witherspoon said. "Both in and out of conference, the travel is one of the biggest challenges we have."