NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
The University at Buffalo will try to dig down and find a little more magic in its basketball season when it meets the University of Miami on Thursday. UB entered the season with low expectations and blew them all away by winning a second straight Mid-American Conference title. UB enters Thursday’s game facing long odds against Miami, ranked 11th in the nation. UB isn’t quite as good as last season, when it shoulda, coulda, woulda upset West Virginia. UB coach Nate Oats says his Bulls are “playing with house money.” They won’t be intimidated but their youth makes them a long, long shot. The big picture: UB brings almost everybody back. It has what might be its highest-rated recruiting class ever coming in. This program is rolling.
UB won the Mid-American Conference because it had the most athletic team in the league. Good defense is the key to the Bulls’ success. They’re a little longer on the wing and more versatile than their MAC foes. The best on-ball perimeter defenders are 6-foot-5 Willie Conner and 6-3 freshman CJ Massinburg. Long-armed point guard Lamonte Bearden, also 6-3, is good on defense, too. Then there’s the Swiss Army knife, 6-6 Blake Hamilton, who plays 6-8 and can defend four positions, point to power forward. Not a lot of mid-majors have that kind of length and talent all along the perimeter. UB is better on defense than last year, partly because Massinburg is taller and longer than Shannon Evans. UB’s freshmen big men, 6-8 Nick Perkins and 6-10 Ikenna Smart are young, but they have done reasonably well defending. UB’s defense triggers its offensive transition game. UB ranks 25th in the nation in tempo. The Bulls need to score on up-tempo rushes because they don’t have the guaranteed 18 points and nine boards a night they had from the low post last year (Justin Moss). On offense, UB spreads the floor with four guys facing the basket and attacks the rim with drives. Bearden is the master at it, but Conner and Massinburg do it almost as well. Hamilton is a mismatch nightmare for most 4-men because he can take them outside and beat them off the dribble. The 260-pound Perkins is a budding star. He has come on of late.
The first thing to know about Miami is it has a great coach in Bronx-born Jim Larranaga. The 66-year-old has a record of 586-390 over 32 years. His shining moment came 10 years ago when he took George Mason to the Final Four. Thirteen straight winning years at George Mason earned him a promotion to South Beach, and he took Miami to the Sweet 16 in 2013. Some big-time teams have a nasty tendency of laying eggs in the post-season. Not Larranaga’s teams. Larranaga coached 11 years at Bowling Green, and current Bowling Green coach Michael Huger runs Larranaga’s schemes. So UB has played a mini-Miami (emphasis on mini) three times this year. The problem for UB is its normal athleticism edge is negated by Miami Atlantic Coast Conference recruits. Miami gets only 27 percent of its points from three-point range (that’s 227th in the nation). Like UB, it has great guards who get in the lane and wreak havoc. Powerfully built, 6-5 off-guard Sheldon McClellan (15.8 ppg) is ranked about 50th on NBA draft boards. Point man Angel Rodriguez (11.8 ppg) penetrates, defends and is the Canes’ emotional leader. At small forward is 6-6 Davon Reed (11.5 ppg), who’s a bit like Hamilton. Miami has a 7-foot center from Nigeria, Tonye Jekiri (8.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg). UB beats MAC teams on the boards. But one worry is Jekiri will eliminate UB’s second-chance opportunities. Miami doesn’t play as fast as UB. It ranks 281st in tempo.
To pull an upset, UB will need to shoot the lights out and have its young big men – Perkins and Smart – to play well over their heads. It probably won’t happen.
Miami 80, UB 72.