The students were standing in line outside Alumni Arena Saturday morning, waiting to get their hands on the most coveted tickets in town, when University at Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon was moved to ponder the big What If?
What if it happens? What if his Bulls knock off Pittsburgh, the No. 2 team in the nation? How's he going to reel in the egos of his players, especially with a 10-day layoff before they play another game? How's he going to prevent them from believing they'd validated themselves as a team that can, as a matter of standard course, play with anyone at any time? Or, of even greater concern, how would he keep his players from fancying themselves capable of defeating lesser foes by rote?
Witherspoon's mind was racing. A win and there'd be a weekend-long party on campus. Heck, there might even be a parade. By Monday, when the team reconvened for practice, he feared his players would show up chomping on cigars. How was he going to humble them, keep their heads from exploding? A coach has to think of these things ahead of time, he explained, because if it happens chaos will abound and there will be no chance to think.
Witherspoon had no such emergency plan in mind seven years and two days earlier, the night he made his UB coaching debut at Alumni Arena against seventh-ranked North Carolina. Never mind that the Bulls led the Tar Heels by five at the half that night. Reality would set in soon enough, which it did, with Carolina strolling off to win by 24 over a rag-tag UB squad.
But these are different times, and Saturday's near upset of the Panthers was another vivid example of just how drastically things have changed. Witherspoon has built a legitimate program, one that's bidding for its fourth straight winning campaign. Two seasons ago the Bulls came within a basket of the NCAA Tournament before advancing two rounds into the NIT. A postseason berth is now on their minds at the start of every season, because once you have a program in place, once your system has taken hold, the possibilities seem endless. The nation's second-ranked team is coming to town? That's no mismatch, that's an opportunity. Bring it on.
The Bulls nearly pulled it off, leading almost all the way before succumbing to Pitt's depth down the stretch of a 70-67 defeat. If UB had one more dependable big man, if it could have spelled a fatigued Yassin Idbihi for a minute or two with eight minutes to play, perhaps Witherspoon would have had cause to use the cautionary victory speech he had formulated in advance. But with a game Idbihi dragging, misfiring from three-point range, committing uncharacteristic turnovers, the upset bid could not be sustained.
Still, what a treat of a game it was. It's beyond uncommon for a team from a major conference to visit the campus gym of a mid-major such as UB. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon made that point repeatedly afterward, which might have been a veiled shot at home-bound Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim -- and should have been if it wasn't. Dixon wants his team to face adversity under unfamiliar circumstances, which means taking on challenging non-conference road games.
Dixon admitted the game had the feel of March Madness, one of those NCAA Tournament contests where the underdog rises to take a swipe at the one of the major elite. The only difference, he said, is that you don't play NCAA Tournament games on the road. True, but unless the favorite's playing the NCAAs in its home territory, when an upset's at hand more than not it's made to feel like its playing on the road.
Give Dixon credit for casting aside his security blanket. College basketball could use more in-season games like this one, with majors meeting up against mid-majors without the benefit of their home court and their home conference referees.
But Dixon's unsure he'd run the same risk again. UB was supposed to be down this year after graduating its starting backcourt. And if this is one of its down years, just imagine it in an up year. Dixon paused when asked if he contemplate returning, smiled and responded, "I'll get back to you on that one."