Amid craziness of COVID-19, Whitesell has UB Bulls hitting stride in time for MAC tourney

UB Bulls

UB men’s basketball coach Jim Whitesell talks with senior David Nickelberry during a game at Alumni Arena (Paul Hokanson/UB Athletics)

At its heart, basketball is a game of rhythm and structure. All coaches search for the perfect balance, that point in a season where all the planning comes together and a team becomes an expression of one man’s hoop vision.

Jim Whitesell, the UB men’s head coach, had to wonder if that time would ever come this season. Like so many college teams in the year of COVID-19, his Bulls struggled to find a competitive groove from the moment they arrived on campus in August.

Early in December, Whitesell had to go on a two-week quarantine when his wife contracted the virus. He coached one home game from a few rows up behind the bench, but had to watch a couple of others — including a crushing loss at Syracuse, which he saw while sitting back home in a hotel.

“I got tested every day, contract tracing for 17 days,” Whitesell recalled on Monday. “It was on and on and on and on. That was weird. My wife got it, but I never did. 

“I was doing Zoom meetings, watching practice, making notes. That was no fun. That was bizarre. Watching games on TV. It was crazy. My staff did a wonderful job, but for me it was frustrating and hard.”

It got worse when the virus struck the team while Whitesell was still in quarantine. The first player tested positive shortly after the overtime loss at Syracuse on Dec. 19. In all, he said about 10 players tested positive, though they recovered quickly. 

Still, the outbreak was around Christmas, which made for a difficult holiday. UB didn’t play a game between Dec. 19 and Jan. 9 and was forced to cancel nonconference tests at St. Bonaventure and West Virginia, intended to bolster their resume for NCAA at-large hopes.

By the end of January, after a one-point home loss to Ohio, the Bulls were 6-6. They were looking like an average team, with an average head coach. There were mutterings about Whitesell, who had taken over the team when Nate Oats left for Alabama after winning 32 games. Maybe the university should have shot higher.

Jim Whitesell leaves a team huddle earlier this season. (Paul Hokanson/UB Athletics)

But Whitesell, 61, believed in himself and his team. He still felt in his heart that they had the makings of a MAC power, and he told them so. 

“I said, ‘Guys, we’re not that far off. I really believe that’,’” Whitesell recalled. “‘But we’ve got to get better.’ We talked about getting better on the defensive end and moving the ball more offensively. The big bullet points.”

When he took the head job after Oats left in the spring of 2019, Whitesell said the program could continue to thrive. They had the same system, the same blueprint. There was no reason they couldn’t still contend for championships. They simply had to pull together and do it.

“It felt like it was only a matter of time,” said Jayvon Graves, the Bulls’ star senior guard and third-leading scorer. “We dug together. We knew there were some things we needed to correct, and there’s still things we can correct. But it’s a process.”

He was right. The Bulls found themselves after falling to 6-6. They won eight of their next nine games and will carry a five-game winning streak into Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinal clash with Miami in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament Cleveland.

“The players really bought in,” Whitesell said. “Every time we’ve lost, they’ve come back and improved. One thing I always say is good programs don’t stay the same. They get better. You’ve got to own your faults, own your weaknesses, attack ‘em and see if you can get better at them. But be accountable to one another for it.”

They’re not as good as the UB team of two years ago, which was the first nationally ranked Big 4 team in half a century. We’ll never see another like it. But once this team found its stride, it played a lot like the Oats teams that went to three NCAA tourneys in four years (they also went in 2015 under Bobby Hurley). 

The numbers are striking. The Bulls (14-7) are eighth in the nation in scoring at 82.7 points a game, roughly the same as the 2018-19 squad. They’re 19th in the country in assists at 16.6, second in offensive rebounds at 14.71, 11th in rebounding margin. 

We’re talking about their ranking in the country — out of 340 teams in Division I — not the MAC. The Bulls play fast. They rebound and defend like their lives depend on it. The system thrives, and it’s also doing well down in Alabama, where Oats has the Tide ranked sixth and was just named SEC coach of the year.

“One thing we talk about is the Buffalo standard,” said Whitesell, who joined Oats in 2015 when Hurley left for Arizona State. “We’ve got to hold them to that standard. There’s been some fantastic teams here. Kids are really giving themselves for the team.

“Good players make good players better. We always say, Make each other better. That’s what good players do. Our players are embracing that. Jayvon Graves is a great example.”

Graves was a complementary player on the last two Oats teams. A year ago, he led UB in scoring at 17.1 points a game and made all-MAC first team. This year, he’s third in scoring (14.6) on a deeper squad. He’s first in minutes, three-pointers and steals; second in blocks and assists; third in rebounds. 

Guard Jayvon Graves ranks third on the team in scoring, second in assists and third in rebounding. (Paul Hokanson/UB Athletics)

The guy is doing it all. Graves was at his best down the stretch as the Bulls surged to the No. 2 seed in the MAC — averaging 14.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 3.0 steals over the last three games. He had his first career triple-double last week against Akron with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. 

It was the third triple-double in school history, joining Shannon Evans in 2014 and C.J. Massinburg in 2018. That’s some good company. It means a lot to Graves to be part of the growing UB hoop legacy — and to create his own chapter this season.

“There really is a legacy here, a winning program,” said Graves, who played at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, the same high school as LeBron James. “That’s one of the reasons I came here. I want to finish out on top.”

Whitesell tells his players, ‘Pass it on.’ The style, the standard. Will Regan and Evans passed it on to Massinburg and Nick Perkins, who passed it along to Graves, Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu. When you’ve made the NCAAs, you want to do it again. 

“Being a senior, I feel like we have what it takes to get there,” Graves said. “It would mean a lot to be that guy, one of those guys that they look upon year after year that have had success here. The biggest thing for me is winning. I want the younger guys to see they have what it takes to get to the Dance.”

What they need is three wins in Cleveland. In past years, the Bulls were often peaking in time for the MAC Tournament. Their performance over the last suggests they’re on a similar trajectory. They open with No. 7 seed Miami, the team that stunned them in a play-in game in Buffalo last March before the rest of the tournament was canceled. 

“Playing them is pretty ironic,” Graves said. “We were definitely upset last year.”

Five NCAA berths in seven years would be quite an accomplishment. It would also be gratifying for Whitesell, who is in his 40th year of coaching but has never been to the NCAAs as a Division I head man. He got there in the lower divisions, but never broke through in his seven seasons at Loyola of Chicago.

“I think every coach aspires to have that opportunity,” Whitesell said. “Look, I want to meet the standard here and play for championships. To get there with this group would be a great achievement for the guys. That’s the way I feel. 

“You’ve got to jump to another level. That’s what we keep talking to the guys about. That’s what tournament play is. It’s possession by possession. Go down and play confident. Do the things you’re doing here to be successful. Keep working hard. 

“So we’ll see. But I’m excited for Thursday’s game, I can tell you that.”

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