UB Bulls looking for a MAC Championship repeat
Buffalo looks to leave Cleveland as winners again
The last time the Buffalo men’s basketball team was in Cleveland, it was cutting down nets celebrating a trip to the big dance.
One year later, the Bulls say they don’t feel pressure to repeat as Mid-American Conference champions.
“It’s our building,” said senior guard Jarryn Skeete about the Quicken Loans Arena, where the MAC Tournament is hosted. “We’re defending champions, right? I think it’s a pressure on everybody else.”
The No. 3 seed Bulls (17-14, 10-8 MAC) will play No. 11 seed Miami Ohio (13-19, 6-12 MAC) in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio Thursday. Last season, Buffalo won the conference tournament as a No. 2 seed to advance to its first-ever NCAA Tournament.
And so far, the seeding has not mattered in the tournament. Both No. 6 seed Ball State and No. 5 seed Kent State were upset in their first round on-campus games.
“Look at the four teams that are sitting at home right now, not going to Cleveland,” said head coach Nate Oats following the team’s final practice on Tuesday afternoon. “Anybody can beat anybody come March. I think we can make a run.”
Oats said his team is ready to go and is much more prepared for Miami Ohio than it was in the previous matchup. The RedHawks defeated the Bulls 67-59 in Buffalo’s final home game and Senior Night on March 1. It was the only time other than its loss at Duke that the Bulls have failed to score more than 60 points in a game.
Oats admitted the team took too many three-pointers during the previous matchup in an effort to avoid Miami Ohio’s zone defense. Buffalo chucked up 31 three-point attempts and only made 10.
“We weren’t mentally ready to come into that game,” said junior wing Blake Hamilton. “We had three good practices and we’re ready to go.”
Buffalo’s biggest problem will be facing the zone defense and the RedHawk offense that is predicated on setting up plays and slowing the game down.
The Bulls have been known as a fast-paced team and Oats admits the team does not like playing a team that attempts to slow the game down. He said the team will not settle for three-pointers and will have his players drive to the rim more.
Skeete thinks this will be effective because of the mismatches some of the Buffalo guards create.
“They’re afraid to guard us man to man,” Skeete said. “We have to take that to our advantage and exploit mismatches.”
A main source of mismatching is Hamilton, a wing that has done a little bit of everything this season. At 6-foot-5, he can shoot, pass and rebound with efficiency while driving to the basket with the right matchup.
Oats said Hamilton is heating up at the right time. Hamilton has been Buffalo’s best player during the second half of the season. He’s averaged more than 20 points per game in his last five regular season matchups and put up a team-high 20 points and 13 rebounds in Buffalo’s last game against the RedHawks.
Oats also believes the rest of the team is heating up at the right time.
Junior wing Willie Conner, who was recently named to the MAC All-Defensive Team, has been “playing his best basketball all year,” All-MAC Third Team sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden is “coming around” and freshman center Ikenna Smart is past his mental lapses and is expected to start, according to Oats.
Oats plans on putting his best players on the court. He said there is no more time for experimenting with different personnel and trying to boost confidence levels of his team. He said it’s “do or die” at this point in the season – especially against a team that presented Buffalo with its latest loss of the season.
“[Miami Ohio] embarrassed us last time we were out here on Senior Night,” Oats said. “I hope it’s fresh in their minds. I would hope it’s some added motivation to come with a little better sense of urgency on Thursday than the last time they played here.”
Tipoff for Buffalo’s matchup against the RedHawks will be at roughly 9 p.m. Thursday.
Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.