The head coach was different, and so were most of the players. But UB still hasn’t forgotten its crushing, 68-62 loss to West Virginia in the first round of the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament last March.
The Bulls, who are back in the NCAA field for the second year in a row, believe they have some unfinished business in the Big Dance.
“I do,” first-year coach Nate Oats said at the NCAA selection party at Santora’s on Transit. “You know what? I felt like we could have beat West Virginia. I mean, we were in it enough. We could have won. I thought we played West Virginia pretty even after we settled into the game about 10 minutes in.”
The Bulls were tied with West Virginia, 62-62, with 2:41 left before faltering in the stretch. They were unsteady at the start, but more than held their own against a team that advanced to the Sweet 16.
Given the knowledge of last year’s game, they’re not at all intimidated by having to face a top team from a major conference. So when they discovered that they would face Miami in the first round of the NCAAs as a No. 14 seed this Thursday, the Bulls were excited about the challenge.
UB and Miami, the third seed and the 11th-ranked team in the land, will play in Providence in a first-round game in a South Region pod. The Hurricanes are 25-7, an Atlantic Coast Conference power with wins over Duke, Virginia, Louisville and Utah.
Miami will be a daunting test for UB – who didn’t get any favors when the selection committee placed Miami coach Jim Larranaga in Providence. Larranaga, who coached George Mason to a surprise Final Four 10 years ago, was a star for Providence College from 1968-71 and will be a crowd favorite there.
But UB has no fear. It just won a MAC title game in Cleveland against an Akron team that had a sizable home-crowd advantage. And the Bulls have played against major foes before.
“We played Iowa State and it was a two-point game with eight or nine minutes left in the game,” said forward Blake Hamilton, whose three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left Saturday lifted UB into the tournament.
“We played Duke tough in the first half, then slipped in the second half,” Hamilton said. “But I feel like our team is capable of playing high major teams for 40 minutes. If we play 40 minutes of intense defense and let our offense come like it did in the MAC Tournament, we’ll be fine.”
For much of the MAC tourney, UB was on a different athletic level than the opposition. They were quicker to loose balls, tougher to guard on penetrations to the basket, and active defensively on the perimeter.
They played like one of those live underdogs from mid-major leagues that have the size and skill to throw a scare into a high seed and create the sort of doubt and tension that produce big upsets.
There was more parity than ever in men’s college basketball this season. Most of the top teams in the country have a half dozen losses or more. There’s no team remotely like the Kentucky squad that rolled unbeaten into the Final Four last season. A third seed is beatable.
“It doesn’t matter,” Oats said. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference. This year, it’s pretty even. I mean, the No. 1 seeds have the most losses ever, so it’s a lot more even one through five, one through six. So 12, 13, 14 seed doesn’t mean much to me. We’ve got guys who can play at a high major level.”
Senior guard Jarryn Skeete, one of two Bulls who played on last year’s title team and the only one who played for Oats, Bobby Hurley and Reggie Witherspoon, said that very thing after UB played one of its worst games on Senior Night. Skeete felt this team had the best talent in the MAC.
“I don’t know too much about Miami,” Skeete said, “but I feel we can play with any guards in the country. Blake’s a mismatch at the 4. I think we got a good shot to win a game, and if we go 20 minutes at a time like the tournament we just played, I think we can play with anybody in the country.
“We’ve played against teams in the past in higher conferences. We haven’t won the games, but we’ve showed we can compete with them.”
You need only look back one year to know how vulnerable a No. 3 seed can be nowadays. Two of them went down to 14 seeds in the first round last year: Georgia State beat Baylor and UAB stunned Iowa State, both by a point.
Oh, and two years ago it was No. 14 Mercer over mighty Duke in the first round. A year earlier, Harvard upset New Mexico in a 3-14 game. At least one of the 14th seeds has won a game in 16 of 30 tournaments since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
In 2010, MAC champion Ohio, a 14 seed, knocked off Georgetown in the first round and went to the Sweet 16. So yes, it can happen. Miami is a strong shooting team (27th in the nation in field goals, 19th in free throws), but if the Bulls play good defense and force them into an off game, who knows?
“I do like our chances,” Oats said. “We’re getting hot. We’re a mid-major team that’s shooting the ball well and really guarding hard. We’ve got to put it together for 40 minutes. I have confidence and I believe in my team.
“If we get rolling at the right time, anything is possible.”