Three steps to the Big Dance

Bulls enter Thursday's quarterfinal with MAC Championship aspirations

The Spectrum

At the men's basketball practice Tuesday afternoon, head coach Bobby Hurley stood silently at center court and watched as ball after ball brushed through the net.

It's an appropriate metaphor for Hurley's work with the Bulls this season. After spending the first half of the year installing his offense and familiarizing his players with their roles, the squad seems to be finally realizing the potential Hurley says he saw in them before the season even started.

"I saw it on the practice floor. I saw the potential there," Hurley said. "I think the offense took longer to come together than anticipated and that's why we didn't have such a great start to the season. Until you're in the fight with the team, you don't realize what you need to emphasize."

The Bulls (19-9, 13-5 Mid-American Conference) are preparing for their Thursday night quarterfinal matchup with the winner of Wednesday's game between Eastern Michigan (19-13, 11-8 MAC) and Northern Illinois (15-16, 9-10 MAC). The Bulls defeated the Eagles once this season and the Huskies twice.

Despite the higher stakes in this week's games, Hurley isn't veering from the course he's kept this season.

"You want to utilize your advantage," Hurley said. "At this point, I'm looking at it that you have to win one game at a time, but bigger picture if you want to cut the nets down, you have to win three consecutive days and the physical toll that takes on your body. I don't want to leave the physical advantage on the practice floor going into Cleveland. We're going hard, just not as long as we typically go."

Hurley has talked to Dan Hurley, his brother and head coach at Rhode Island University, about ways to prepare his team for the postseason. Hurley also considered calling his former head coach and Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski but decided not to do so. Hurley cited Coach K's unfamiliarity with the Bulls as the reason for not making the call.

For the final time, senior forward Javon McCrea - who was named to the All-MAC first team for the third time in his career Tuesday - and senior guard Jarod Oldham will represent the Bulls this postseason. Both players are thinking MAC Championship or bust.

McCrea believes the team has held up better toward the end of the season this year than they did in past years.

"In my first three years here, we hit February, guys were dead," McCrea said. "We would lose a few games we weren't supposed to lose. But this year I feel like I tried to reiterate to the guys, let them know that February was going to be a tough month, and I guess it worked."

McCrea also said he wanted a chance at a rematch with No. 2 Toledo (26-5, 14-4 MAC). The Bulls faced Toledo Jan. 15 and lost 67-65 on a buzzer-beater. If Buffalo wins Thursday night's game, it will face the Rockets Friday.

Oldham thinks there is a different confidence throughout the team this year.

"I think now guys are a lot more confident going into the tournament with what we can do and what we got on our team all around," Oldham said.

Hurley is rightfully happy with the way his team is playing, especially against zone defenses. He cited the Bulls' performance against Bowling Green (12-20, 6-13 MAC) Saturday and also the team's shooting performance in practice as being strong indicators that Buffalo has improved against the zone.

The Bulls' quarterfinal game tips at 9 p.m. Thursday. Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois play at 9 p.m. Wednesday to determine who will play Buffalo.