Recent results yield new expectations
The only thing that can stop the men's basketball team from winning the Mid-American Conference tournament is the team itself.
The Bulls have won eight of their last 10 and currently hold a two-game lead in the MAC East. They've never had sole possession of first place this late in a season, let alone a two-game lead. The only comparable season is 2008-09, when Buffalo held the MAC East lead Feb. 26. Buffalo ultimately won a share of the MAC regular season title but lost in the conference championship game.
That can't happen this year.
Before the season, I didn't expect Buffalo to go on some sort of "magical run." I believed this was the most talented team since 2011-12 MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt and fellow first-team all-MAC player Javon McCrea led the Bulls to a No. 2 seed.
But talent alone doesn't win you a title. You need a system.
Buffalo had a system for 14 years with previous head coach Reggie Witherspoon. Then came new coach Bobby Hurley, bringing with him a new style of play. He didn't have much time to recruit the players he felt best fit his game plan; he mostly had to work with what he had. Until recently, it didn't appear UB had what Hurley needed.
The Bulls got off to a less-than-surprising slow start, beginning 4-4 with an 0-3 record against the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference. One of UB's losses came to Niagara, which currently has only six wins.
Buffalo faced MAAC foes Canisius and Manhattan in December on neutral courts. The Bulls blew a 10-point lead with 13 minutes remaining against Canisius, and lost a seven-point lead with 45 seconds left against Manhattan.
They weren't finishing. It was concerning - the Bulls had their opponents cornered, but they let up. Where was the killer instinct? It was early in the Hurley Era, but the trend continued into the beginning of MAC competition.
In their game against Toledo, which was 13-2 at the time, the Bulls had a seven-point lead at halftime but lost their lead less than 10 minutes into the second half. They lost the game on a "Hail Mary" pass and contested jumper as time expired.
A little over a week later, the Bulls had a six-point lead at halftime against Ball State. Less than four minutes into the second half, they let the lead disintegrate, and the Bulls lost. The story was the same in the season's first matchup with Ohio: large lead, blown lead, lost game.
Buffalo jumps ahead with huge leads before allowing its opponent to creep back and make it interesting. But now, the Bulls are winning these games.
Buffalo's 11-point lead dwindled to two against Akron. Its 13-point lead over Kent State with 4:27 remaining was cut to only five. Even in Wednesday's victory at Ohio, a 15-point halftime lead turned to two after 10 minutes, and it was a one-point game with 1:10 remaining. The Bulls recovered in all three of these games for victories.
The Bulls are maturing and keeping their composure as the season unwinds, and the results have reflected that. Even Hurley's sideline tirades have decreased. As Hurley's attitude has eased, so has the team's play - I don't think that's a coincidence.
Just as new players must learn their coach, the coach must learn his players. There's no better example of this than junior forward Will Regan. Regan played only 18, 19 and 16 minutes, respectively, in the team's first three games of the season. In the Manhattan loss, he played only 21 minutes.
Regan is a 6-foot-8 sharpshooter who plays tough defense. How is he not an asset? Hurley has clearly learned how to better utilize his skills, as Regan has played at least 30 minutes in nine of the last 10 games - eight of which have ended in victories.
Senior point guard Jarod Oldham is the team's X-factor. He has shot at least 50 percent in five of Buffalo's last six victories. He shot 28.6 and 33 percent in its last two losses. He has certainly looked more comfortable as of late, which is critical for the Bulls.
Oldham has by far the most "big-game" experience among all the guards. He averaged 29 minutes and recorded 5.9 assists to just 2.7 turnovers per game in that impressive 2011-12 season, which ended in the MAC semifinals.
Senior forward Javon McCrea has been the usual dominant force in the middle and is having his most efficient statistical season at UB. He is shooting for a higher percentage and has more points and rebounds per game than ever before.
It's often the hottest team that wins in March, and it's difficult to find a MAC team looking better than the Bulls right now.
"It was our goal before the season to be in the top four so that we can advance to Cleveland without having to play," Hurley said before the Ohio victory.
It's time to set new goals. Hurley has the program's leading scorer and a senior point guard who completely grasps the offense. It's championship or bust for this year's men's basketball team.
If Buffalo loses in the MAC Tournament, the season's a failure. The only thing in this team's way is itself.
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