Hooping it up Big 4 style

It's time to check in on the state of some of the area's college hoops programs

Howard Simon
March 11, 2020 - 4:57 pm
Mark Schmidt

Photo: David Kohl - USA TODAY Sports

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Since it is March and madness is almost upon us, I thought I’d share a few thoughts with you in regards to the local college basketball teams.

It felt like the NCAA Tournament was becoming a regular part of the University at Buffalo schedule, but the Bulls won’t be in the field this season after earning four trips over the last six years.

UB had to play in the first round of the Mid-American Conference tournament for the first time in seven years and were knocked out on their home floor by 12th-seed Miami (OH). It was a pretty deflating defeat for a Bulls team that definitely played better over the second half of their MAC schedule than the first and was planning on a trip to Cleveland to defend their crown.

However, Bulls fans should actually feel very good about the state of the program.

This season had all the makings of a big step back, but that didn’t happen. If 20 overall wins, an 11-7 MAC record, a 5-seed for the conference tournament and first round defeat is a down year, then life will be very good for UB hoops going forward.

Think about everything that happened since the 2018-19 season ended. UB graduated two of the best players in program history in C.J. Massinburg and Nick Perkins. Those two seniors were also joined by Jeremy Harris, who made a huge impact after coming to UB from the junior college ranks. Add in Dontay Caruthers, who was one of the best defenders to ever don a Bulls uniform, and Montell McRae whose final season in the blue and white was his best and you had quite a collection of talent leaving Amherst.

Then head coach Nate Oats left for life in the SEC at Alabama. Bulls fans were prepared for that day, but his departure led to all four players in a talented recruiting class changing their minds and taking their talents elsewhere. That put Jim Whitesell, who was Oats’ right-hand man and was elevated into the top job, back on the road to see what recruits were left out there. Not an ideal scenario to say the least. But Whitesell and his staff found a way to keep the Bulls among the top teams in the league. Their MAC record included wins over each of the top-three seeds Akron, Bowling Green and Ball State.

The program appears to be in very good hands.

Life hasn’t been much fun up at Niagara since Joe Mihalich left. In the six years following his move to Hofstra, the Purple Eagles had just one winning season in Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference play.

But Niagara tapped into a legendary basketball name in Western New York in hopes of turning the program around. They hired Patrick Beilein, son of former Canisius coach John Beilein. But the younger Beilein had to unexpectedly resign the job just weeks before the start of the season, leaving assistant Greg Paulus as the man on the hot seat.

Expectations were pretty low as evidenced by the preseason poll, which placed NU 10th in the 11-team league. Paulus was also relying on a core group dominated by underclassmen. Niagara went 9-11 in MAAC play (their second-best record in seven years), good enough for a 6-seed and recorded a first round win over Marist in the MAAC tournament.

They will next play in the quarterfinals on Thursday. Sophomore Marcus Hammond, who led the team in scoring this season, was named First-Team All MAAC. Fellow sophomore Raheem Solomon was third on the team in scoring.

It was a good first step back to respectability. 

Then there is St. Bonaventure.

This won’t be anything Bona fans don’t already know, but Mark Schmidt is one of the best coaches in the history of WNY college basketball. Remember all those stories about how you can’t consistently win at Bona because it's too hard to recruit to Olean? Apparently Schmidt didn’t hear those stories because he finds talent, and his coaching makes those players even better by the time they leave. No matter which key players or how many of them graduate, no matter if there is a rash of injuries or Schmidt has to play a bunch of underclassmen who go through growing pains while getting big minutes, the Bonnies just keep winning. 

The top-four scorers on this team are sophomores. The fifth-leading scorer is a freshman. The roster has just one senior and only two juniors. The rest are underclassmen, and yet Schmidt guided that group to 19 wins overall and 11 wins in Atlantic-10 play.

Speaking of A-10 play, Schmidt’s teams have recorded at least 10 wins in the conference in each of the last six seasons.

Let me put that into perspective. Bona joined the league in 1982 and prior to Schmidt’s arrival in Olean, the program had never registered back-to-back campaigns of 10 or more conference victories. In fact, it happened only four times in the 25 pre-Schmidt years.

Did I mention Schmidt has reached that mark six straight years?

Over the last five years, St. Bonaventure is 62-28 in Atlantic-10 games. Dayton is the only program that has a better conference record over that stretch (68-22).

Bona officials should just put a lifetime contract on Schmidt’s desk and ask him to sign.

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