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UB men face rugged first hurdle on road to MAC three-peat

CLEVELAND – There wasn’t a lot of talk about a three-peat after the University at Buffalo men’s basketball practice Monday.

Sure, the players answered a few questions about defending their back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles.

But most of the discussion was squarely focused on the first hurdle the team faces in the MAC Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.

Kent State has UB’s undivided attention. Third-seeded UB meets the sixth-seeded Golden Flashes at 9 p.m. Thursday in a quarterfinal game.

Kent State (19-13) is the hottest team in the MAC. It has beaten each of the MAC’s top three seeds – Akron, Ohio and UB – in the past three weeks. It has won six of its last seven games.

The Golden Flashes have the second best low-post player in the MAC in 6-foot-8 senior Jimmy Hall. They’re one of the few MAC teams with a starting five that can match – or almost match – UB’s athleticism. And like UB, they’re a superb rebounding team.

“It’s going to be a fistfight with them,” said UB coach Nate Oats. “They’re not going to back down. We know it. We feel like we’re both pretty tough teams that play hard and grind it out.”

“They’ve got one of the best players in the league in Hall,” said UB senior Blake Hamilton. “They’re just a real gritty, grimy team. It’s going to be a good game. I think we’re a gritty and grimy team, as well. So it’s going to be a fist fight. It’s going to be a war out there. Hopefully we come out and play UB basketball.”

UB won at Kent, 82-69, on Jan. 17. Kent won at UB, 77-69. The difference in the games was Kent made 19 turnovers in the first one. It made just 11 in the win at Alumni Arena.

In the last seven games, the Golden Flashes have averaged just 8.5 turnovers a game. The best ball-protecting team in the nation, Princeton, averages 10 turnovers a game. Kent State is making the most out of its offensive possessions, and it’s not giving the opposition many opportunities to get transition buckets.

UB thrives on transition buckets.

“They made it a big point of emphasis to not give us anything in transition,” Oats said. “The big thing with them lately is they’re just not turning the ball over. You’re not getting those baskets in transition. They’re doing a great job.”

Kent State does not have a deep bench, and it relies heavily on its three main weapons for scoring. Hall averages 18.6 ppg, 6-1 shooting guard Jaylin Walker averages 15.3, and 6-3 wing Deon Edwin averages 14.7.

Hall scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the win at UB. Kent State outrebounded UB in the second half of that game, 25-16.

Kent State No. 1 in the MAC in offensive rebounding, UB is No. 2. UB is more rested than Kent State, which won a 116-106 overtime game over Central Michigan on Monday.

The MAC Tournament looks is more wide open this year than it has been the past two seasons.

UB was ranked No. 29 in the nation in the Ratings Percentage Index when it won the title two years ago. Last season, Akron entered the tournament No. 36. It got knocked off by UB, rated No. 91 at the time.

This year Akron enters the post-season ranked No. 60 in the RPI. The Zips own the MAC’s best record (24-7) and won the league at 14-4 by three games. But they’re not as deep as in past years and they have lost three of their last five.

The UB-Kent State winner might be Akron’s biggest threat. Both UB and Kent beat No. 2-seed Ohio in the past week. Ohio plays Toledo on Thursday. The winner of that game meets UB or Kent.

No MAC team ever has won three straight titles.

“Somebody’s going to do it eventually, so why not us?” Hamilton said.

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