A month ago, when UB was rolling along unbeaten in the MAC, head coach Nate Oats said this year's team could be better than the NCAA teams of two and three years ago. He gave two main reasons: Team chemistry and team defense.
"Defense carries," Oats said in mid-January during a seven-game run in which the UB men gave up 70 points only once and allowed an average of 67 points a game.
But the Bulls' defense lost its grip there for awhile. After winning their first eight league games, giving rise to talk of a perfect MAC regular season and a possible at-large NCAA Tournament berth, they split their next four games and gave up at least 82 points in all of them.
So on Tuesday night, coming off a 90-88 overtime loss at Northern Illinois, UB was looking to reassert itself as the class of the MAC against a Kent State team that had lost three in a row since handing the Bulls their first conference loss two weeks ago.
The Bulls responded in dynamic fashion, taking control of the game early, playing an assertive game on both ends of the floor and holding the Golden Flashes to 39.4 percent shooting in an 84-72 victory at Alumni Arena.
"I thought our defensive intensity was much better," Oats said after UB moved to 19-7, 11-2 in the MAC. "We were not happy at all with the effort at Northern Illinois. we gave them Sunday off to get our heads straight. We had a great practice yesterday and I thought it translated to tonight."
UB played like a team capable of breaking the school record for wins (23) and winning the league tournament, maybe even getting a rare MAC at-large bid. And it was clear that Oats had gotten his message across, because it was defense that carried them.
The Bulls defended ferociously from the outset, rotating on the perimeter to confront shooters and into the post to unsettle the Kent State big men. In the first half, Kent shot 37.9 percent, turned it over nine times and found itself trailing at the break, 45-27.
UB outrebounded Kent State by 12. They had eight steals (seven in the first half) and six blocks. It was a dazzling display of quickness and swarming defense. Defense ignites offense, which is why the Bulls shot 52.4 percent for the game and had 19 assists on 33 field goals.
"Yeah, when you get stops and you're playing in transition it leads to assists," Oats said.
The Bulls had their lapses. They were soft at the start of the second half and after the under-eight timeout, which was an issue in their two MAC losses. But the D held up when it mattered. CJ Massinburg held Kent State's top scorer, Jaylin Walker, to 4-for-17 shooting. The big men held 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa, who had scored 20 in a win over UB, to 11 points.
"I thought the job CJ did on Walker was unbelievable," Oats said. "He's our leading scorer and had only eight tonight, but he got the blue- collar hat. I'd give him MVP of the game with the job he did on Walker."
UB awards the hard hat to the player with the most exemplary effort in a game. The fact that Oats gave it to a guy who scored eight points tells you how much he values defense, and how it could carry the Bulls to special places this season.
Oats is realistic about UB's chance of an NCAA at-large berth. The MAC hasn't gotten one since 1999, the year Wally Szczerbiak led Miami of Ohio to the Sweet 16. It was also the year UB entered the league. The MAC got a second team in the Big Dance in 1998, too.
But those days are long gone in the NCAA, where the elite leagues expand and the rich get richer. The Bulls were 33rd in the RPIs as of Tuesday. But the MAC is down. The selection committee is notorious for honoring a high RPI for a power league team but dismissing it when it's a mid-major.
So they've probably exhausted any margin of error. They might as well forget about getting an at-large berth and work to sustain the level of play they achieved in January, which should be good enough for them to win a third MAC tourney in four years next month in Cleveland.
Watching them Tuesday, you could see why Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, the dean of MAC coaches, said this was UB's best team -- even better than the NCAA Tournament teams of 2015 and 2016 -- after losing to them two weeks ago.
When the Bulls commit to defense, it allows them to run the floor and express their sheer athletic advantages. They're also deep, especially at guard, which tends to wear down the opponent. Talk about guard depth. Dontay Carruthers, a 6-1 junior guard from Rochester, was MAC defensive player of the year last season. Carruthers comes off the bench and averages 17 minutes a night.
UB, which is now 11-1 at home, let up a bit in the second half, which happens in college hoops. At times, it seems they want it to be easy, which was often the case with last year's team. Kent State pulled within 10 points a couple of times late in the game. But they used all their energy offensively. Every time they drew close, the Bulls had an answer.
Defense carries, remember. It seemed as if the players had forgotten that during the recent four-game spell. But it has to be there in March, when a contender needs the D to carry the burden on a night when the shots aren't falling.
"No, we didn't forget it," said forward Jeremy Harris, who led UB with 24 points. "We just had a mental breakdown. But I think tonight we got back to where we wanted to be."