UB men's basketball prepare for MAC Tournament with championship aspirations

Cleveland is the reason


Junior forward Justin Moss called a practice held after the men’s basketball team’s 92-88 loss to Toledo on Feb. 10 a “look in the mirror” moment for Buffalo.

After a promising start to the season that included two competitive games against two of the top teams in the country, Kentucky and Wisconsin, the Bulls were just 6-5 in conference play after the loss to the Rockets.

“We had to stop and think,” Moss said. “Did we want our season to be remembered for our games against Kentucky and Wisconsin, or did we want it to be remembered for our success? From there, we just took off.”

A month and six wins later, Bulls claimed a MAC East division title, a share of the regular season MAC Championship and a triple-bye in this week’s conference tournament in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

The No. 2 seeded Bulls (21-9, 12-6 MAC) will play a yet to be determined opponent Friday in the MAC Semifinals – meaning they’ll will need just two victories to claim their first ever MAC Tournament championship, as well as the program’s first ever NCAA tournament bid.

The winner of the matchup between No. 7 Akron (19-13, 9-9 MAC) and No. 6 Western Michigan (20-12, 10-8 MAC) on Wednesday will advance to face No. 3 Kent State (21-01, 12-6) on Thursday. The winner of that game on Thursday will play Buffalo in the semifinal.

Sophomore guard Shannon Evans, named to the All-MAC second team on Monday, said that the team’s “switch” occurred during a practice after the loss to Toledo.

“After that loss, we decided to take a different mentality,” Evans said. “We took it old school – we prepared more, did all the little things again. We worked harder in practice and had to push each other to play harder. We stopped being so traditional and casual.”

The Bulls lost their next game – a 75-74 last second loss to No. 1 seeded Central Michigan (22-7, 12-6 MAC) – but then won six straight games in a row to close out the season.

The Bulls seemed more active on the defensive side of the ball as they finished their season. In their last six victories, the Bulls allowed just one team (Bowling Green) to score more than 70 points against them and forced double digit turnovers in five of the six games.

Junior guard Rodell Wigginton said the defense was the one area where the team improved the most towards the end the season.

“By the end of the season, we were just everywhere on defense,” Wigginton said. “Rotations, forcing turnovers, stopping key players – we made sure that we played good defense because our defense usually generated easy offense for us.”

One player that has helped on the defensive side of the ball is senior forward Xavier Ford. In the 12 games since Ford entered the starting lineup, the Bulls give up 3.7 less points per game.

Ford, like Wigginton, said that the defensive turnaround after the losing streak was vital to the team’s success late in the season.

“We definitely got more active and it showed,” Ford said. “After that Toledo game where we allowed 92 points and a bunch of threes, we came into those next few games active and hungry on the defensive end. Our offense is our calling card, but the defense helped us get here.”

As a senior, Ford said the last two seasons have been great for him and he has just one goal now – bringing home the MAC championship.

“We’ve won the East division, now we have to win the conference tournament and make it to the NCAA,” Ford said.

Head coach Bobby Hurley stood on the sidelines Monday as his team took free throw after free throw, with a miss resulting in a sprint up and down the court. While pushing his team, Hurley said he ultimately wanted his team to be “fresh” in Friday’s game.

“It was a good practice,” Hurley said. “We wanted to be active, get the players back on the floor and just work with them a bit to get them back into that mentality after Friday’s game. We pushed them, but we want to remain fresh heading into Friday’s game.”

Hurley said the team worked mostly on the “little things.” At this point in the season, Hurley said fine-tuning the team’s best attributes needed to be the focus during practices.

The Bulls will play Friday in Cleveland for the right to go to the MAC Championship game. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m.

Quentin Haynes is a sports editor and can be contacted at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com