"A big, tough loss for UB, but the team's potential is immense"
Men's basketball team needs to learn from defeat to contend in competitive MAC
Almost everything about Saturday's men's basketball game was promising through the first 33 minutes. At the 7:00 mark, Buffalo led 63-53.
There were some external factors we need to consider. Ohio was missing a key contributor in injured guard Stevie Taylor, and guard TJ Hall didn't play significant minutes because he rolled his ankle. The Bobcats hadn't been great on the road this season (6-4), and Buffalo had been dominant at home (10-1). But it seemed like this would finally be the one - at last, a signature win over Ohio - and the Bulls would take it any way they could get it.
That's because besting the Bobcats is never easy. Ohio was leading the all-time series 24-8, and they had won the past six matchups between the schools, including a 77-74 heartbreaker in the MAC tourney in Cleveland in 2012. UB last beat Ohio in 2010-11.
But on Saturday, things fell apart like it seems they always do against Ohio. The streaks continued. UB went 3 for 12 after that 7:00 mark while Ohio went 8 for 12. It was a 20-7 run that gave the Bobcats a well-deserved 73-70 road win.
"To win these types of games a couple of things have to happen: you have to play pretty well, but they have to miss on opportunities," Ohio coach Jim Christian aptly pointed out post-game.
The Bulls did indeed miss on opportunities, and these were vital moments; this game meant more than just defeating the Bulls' arch-nemesis. (I think it's fair to give the 'Cats that title after their 2012 tourney win, which ended with UB's best player in tears, and the game last year that ended with DJ Cooper cursing out True Blue and stealing a sign of him wearing a bikini. Yes, that happened. You're welcome for the reminder.) It meant jockeying for position in a hyper-competitive MAC.
Let's examine the big picture. MAC West leader Toledo lost badly to Eastern Michigan earlier Saturday, and with a win UB would have moved into a tie for No. 1 overall in the conference. With the MAC's triple-bye-for-the-top-two-teams setup, this one was crucial. If you're at home in the MAC and have all the momentum late in the game against a team missing two of its key players, you need to win that game. The postseason tournament arrangement demands it.
With the game tied at 65, I jotted in my notes: "This is where good teams prove they're the class of the conference. This is where experience comes into play." And then I looked at the current season stats. Ohio's strength of schedule: 119. Buffalo's: 241 - worst in the conference.
I know UB is senior-laden, but that's the experience I'm talking about - playing teams that are as good as you. Before Ohio, Buffalo had lost against Bowling Green and Ball State, the bottom-feeders in each division, in extremely close games. Perhaps that is because those teams have two of the three highest strengths of schedule in conference (82 and 73, respectively).
Though Buffalo likely would not be 14-8 right now, a tougher early-season slate would have benefitted the team. Early on, Ball State was playing schools like Butler and Marquette, and Ohio was taking on Ohio State and UMass. Meanwhile, Buffalo was challenging West Virginia Wesleyan and Binghamton.
But it's all in the past. UB took a tough loss Saturday, yet it might've been necessary for the squad to grow.
This is the point at which we find out who the Bulls really are. Are they an average MAC team that beat up on lesser competition early in the year? Or are they a contender finally playing - and learning from its games against - some equal opposition?
This is where we find out. Including Saturday, four of their final six games are against Ohio and Akron, their top competition in the East.
We got a glimpse at the answer Saturday. There is a lot of championship potential on this team. They are very talented. When they're locked in, the Bulls play serious 'D' - just watch some of the clips of Shannon Evans against Ohio.
Based on Saturday's crowd, it seems fans are getting the memo that this team has the potential to win the MAC. For the first time this season, almost every section in Alumni Arena was full, even the 300s, and the fans were loud. The environment matched the liveliness of the game.
When Evans threw down a dunk to put the Bulls up 57-52, the place erupted. It was the first time since 2011-12 I've felt that type of energy in Alumni Arena.
So, does this team warrant the fans?
First, the bad: The squad's lack of depth is a weakness. Right now, coach Bobby Hurley is going eight deep, but Xavier Ford and Justin Moss are not getting serious minutes. So he's essentially playing a six-man rotation. If someone gets into foul trouble or gets hurt, or Jarryn Skeete never fully recovers from his ankle injury, UB could be in danger in the conference tourney. But I think they're going to surprise people.
That's because of the good: They're finally getting that experience they so desperately need, and all of them - perhaps first-year coach Hurley most importantly - will learn from it.
"We are learning how to win," Hurley said. "Hopefully we are learning how to close these games out down the stretch."
They have a lot of learning left to do - the Bulls are 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. But I genuinely believe they are learning.
Wednesday's matchup against Akron is pivotal, and it will be a "white-out," as UB is sort of trying to fill the Arena with white. Why "sort of?" Because administration is charging $10 for white-out shirts. I've never heard of charging fans for white-out shirts.
Ignore the foolish marketing and come to the game. The environment has the potential to change games, and you could be a part of the resurgence.
Also ignore the team's poor play down the stretch today - because this year's squad has the potential to change UB basketball history.