Bulls have a quiet confidence heading into their first-ever NCAA tournament game

tom

COLUMBUS, OHIO – As the men’s basketball team prepared to face No. 1 Kentucky back in November, head coach Bobby Hurley thought he needed something to boost his confidence. The solution: his back-to-back national championship ring he won from 1991-92 as a Duke point guard.

“I put it on as a subtle reminder of what I used to be capable of doing to try and build my confidence and boost it as much as I could for my team,” Hurley said.

The Bulls (23-9, 12-6 Mid-American Conference) eventually lost 71-52, but they led the still unbeaten and No. 1 seed Wildcats 38-33 at halftime in one of the toughest arenas to play in across the country. Junior forward Justin Moss was trending on Twitter after posterizing Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein. (Hurley tried to find a picture of the play so he could put it on the Bulls’ locker room wall.)

Hurley’s been wearing the ring ever since.

OK, so maybe it’s not just the ring that’s pushed Buffalo on its current run to its first-ever NCAA tournament and a second round matchup with West Virginia on Friday. But for whatever reason, the moment doesn’t seem too big for the Mid-Major program making its first trip to the big dance.

Hurley and the players seemed humble and relaxed as they addressed the media Thursday. Aside from the extra spectators, the shoot around on the Nationwide Arena hardwood felt more like that of one on the eve of a nonconference matchup rather than the biggest game in the history of the program.

I can’t help but feel like this confidence all started after the Kentucky game. It’s easy to forget Buffalo wasn’t supposed to be here. Not many predicted Buffalo to do much this season – including The Spectrum, as senior forward Xavier Ford has rightfully pointed out the past few days. Even Hurley admitted it was natural to assume Buffalo was going to take a step back after losing three starters.

Although the perception outside the program was that Buffalo would take a step back, Hurley said he didn’t necessarily think so. Not after watching Justin Moss “destroy people in the gym.” Not when he thought about sophomore Shannon Evans taking on the starting point guard role. Seeing the Bulls hang tough with Kentucky and Moss dunk over one of the top players in the country on SportsCenter only validated that for Hurley.

Maybe getting that experience on the road and national exposure early on has prepared the Bulls for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. Hurley said he’s trying to keep his team’s emotions in check, make sure they’re having fun and that they’re not treating the game any differently. Ford pointed out that Friday is, after all, a “basketball game,” and the Bulls have been playing it their whole lives.

If everyone on the roster has that mentality, they’ll put themselves in good position to pull off the upset come Friday afternoon. Not that the Bulls should feel overmatched when it comes to the matchup with West Virginia.

It seems just about everyone’s bracket has Buffalo pulling off the common 12/5 upset, from ESPN analysts to the president of the United States. The Bulls are at least saying all the right things when it comes to blocking out the noise of being the popular pick.

Evans said Buffalo is trying to “stay true” to itself. Hurley has said for the past few days that he’s been adamant with the team that they’re listening to the coaches’ message only. He said the Bulls should ignore being picked to win and use being picked to lose as motivation.

Maybe this team would do better if no one gave them a shot against West Virginia. That was the case against Kentucky and against Wisconsin – which Buffalo also lost to after leading at halftime. They seemed to feed off being the underdog. For their own sake, they should try and bring that same mentality against West Virginia regardless of the perception.

Whatever happens Friday, there’s no denying the impact this season has already had on the program. Buffalo doesn’t have an NBA team. The Bulls don’t have much of a market to compete with in the Buffalo community. An NCAA tournament appearance is a pretty good way to convince people to come out to Alumni Arena and that the Bulls are a team they can take ownership of.

Winning a game – maybe two – would only help that. Not to mention the national attention it could bring, which goes a long way with recruiting. Although it seems like Hurley isn’t having much trouble with that. Maybe that will convince him to stick around a few more seasons.

This team doesn’t seem surprised by the big wins or spotlight that has come with this unexpected season. Regardless if Buffalo wins or loses Friday, I don’t think it will be because the moment was too big for them.

Tom Dinki is the senior news editor and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com