CLEVELAND – You don’t need to spend more than one day here at the Mid-American Conference tournament to realize the league is as balanced as it has been in years.
There’s not much separating the top teams from the bottom in the MAC this year. No. 1 seed Akron trailed Eastern Michigan by 10 with 7:45 left Thursday before surviving by two points.
Bowling Green became the first 12 seed ever to reach the semifinals by upsetting No. 4 seed Central Michigan, the coaches’ preseason favorite to win the tournament and automatic NCAA bid.
The UB women struck a blow for MAC parity on Wednesday, stunning top-seeded Ohio to earn a berth in today’s noon semifinal.
So the UB men, who earned the No. 3 tournament seed with a modest 10-8 conference record, had no reason to be overconfident against Miami, which had beaten four of the top six seeds in the previous 17 days.
Miami was a dangerous 11th seed, which it proved early this month by coming into Alumni Arena on Senior Night and beating the Bulls, 67-59, holding them to their fewest points in three months. If a lowly 12 seed could sneak into the semis, why not an 11?
Well, because the Bulls, still stung by their humbling on Senior Night, performed to their talent and their seed, applying themselves at both ends of the floor in a resounding 94-81 victory over Miami on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Bulls advanced to tonight’s semifinal against Ohio, proving they’re one of the top four teams in the league. Oh, and they reminded the world that, while the head coach and most of the players have changed, they remain the defending champions and don’t intend to go down easily.
“Yeah,” said sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden, who had 14 points and four assists. “We just wanted to come out and show people what we could do without a few pieces from last year, and we’re looking pretty good.”
This was a classic contrast in styles. The new hoop analytics said UB played at the 23rd-quickest tempo in the country, Miami was a plodding 334th. But after a slow start, UB began to play to its own tempo, attacking the Miami zone much more adroitly than it had March 1.
They shot well from the three-point line, drawing out the Miami defenders to create driving lanes and post-ups for the big men. When it mattered most, the Bulls were true to their identity as a deep, diverse, attacking offensive squad. The foundation, as always, was a collapsing man-to-man defense, especially on the perimeter.
“Miami was one of the hottest teams in the league coming into this game,” said UB head coach Nate Oats after his first college tournament win as a head man. “They were playing well defensively. So for us to put up 94 points shows we’re buying into moving the ball and guarding people and getting out in transition on stops. We’re a pretty good team when we do that.”
Everyone got into the act. Oats, who did a masterful recruiting job to remake the team on the fly, got solid contributions from Rodell Wigginton, Bearden and Jarryn Skeete (13 points), who were part of the team that earned UB its first MAC title and NCAA bid under Bobby Hurley.
But it was Oats’ junior transfers – Blake Hamilton and Willie Conner – who responded to the bright lights of tourney time.
Hamilton, the all-purpose, 6-6 wing man, had 11 points, seven assists and 16 rebounds. Conner, who hasn’t always lived up to his reputation as a three-point marksman, sank a season-high six threes and led all scorers with 25 points.
“We all just bought in and keyed in on defense,” said Conner, a 6-foot-5 wing from Chicago. “When they played us at our house, we didn’t play defense too well. So tonight, we wanted to come out aggressive and take them out of their game, and that’s what we did.
“That was the key, to move the ball. We’ve got people who can pass and make plays. We’re not selfish. Tonight was my night, so tomorrow it could be anybody else’s night. We just want to play together and move the ball.”
UB set the tone early with its swarming man-to-man defense, jumping to a 15-6 lead and forcing the RedHawks to call a timeout with 12:28 left in the first half. Miami hung around, but UB was clearly the superior team playing at its favored tempo.
The Bulls scored 57 points in the second half and seemed to be toying with Miami at times. They had their senior moment nine days earlier at Alumni Arena. At tournament time, they were alive and engaged offensively, much like last year’s champs.
With UB leading, 63-50, David Kadiri put back a C.J. Massinburg miss. Then Skeete was fouled on a drive and made two free throws. After a Miami miss, Conner took a pass in the left corner and lobbed to Ikenna Smart at the right of the rim for a dunk, bringing the bench to its feet.
It was the sort of audacious moment that defined them in last year’s tournament here. On Thursday, they reminded MAC watchers that they still possess those qualities. They’re two games away from a second straight trip to the Big Dance.
Winning in convincing fashion had to get people’s attention, regardless of the opponent. At this time of year, in a league this balanced, you embraced any victory and move on.
“We’re a deep team,” Hamilton said, “and if we play like that, we’re going to be a tough out.”