It could have been perceived as a snub last fall when Mid-American Conference coaches and media picked the University at Buffalo, with five returning starters, to finish last in the East Division.
But there were a couple of factors behind the pedestrian expectations: Established teams like Miami (Ohio), Kent State and Akron had players who knew how to win. UB, with all of its experience, did not.
In retrospect, the coaches and media were more wrong than right -- the Bulls (17-8, 9-3) have the league's best record with two weeks to go -- but that could change drastically. With four games remaining in the regular season, UB has to play better than it has over the last three games to have any chance at winning the league's regular-season championship and the automatic National Invitation Tournament bid that comes with it.
The latest setback came over the weekend at Vermont, where the Bulls fell, 78-70, their third loss in as many games. As in the losses that preceded it, the Bulls were undermined by a lack of focus and defensive intensity.
"We've defined the problem," said junior shooting guard Rodney Pierce. "Now we have to fix it."
Tonight's game against Akron (7 p.m., Radio 1230 AM) at Alumni Arena offers the Bulls a chance to see if the problems have been solved. Only one scenario remains if UB wants an NCAA Tournament berth: Sweep through the upcoming MAC Tournament. But if they play like they did the last three games, that scenario isn't possible.
"The things we do well, we have to work harder at them because our opponents know we do them well, too," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon. "That's tough defense, rebound well, cut harder, screen better. Those are the things we have to do. We can't just say, 'We're good at them,' and that's the end of it. We have to work harder because our opponents want to work hard at them, too."
The Bulls seem to clamp down defensively at home. Buffalo has held seven of its last eight opponents to under 60 points at Alumni Arena, and have pulled down 15 or more offensive rebounds in three of the last five home games.
The Bulls have beaten every team in the East Division except for Bowling Green. They won nine straight before beginning their recent slide Feb. 15 at Ball State.
Tonight's game against Akron (17-10, 8-4) should sizzle with electricity because there's so much at stake. The Zips are in a four-way tie for second place in the division behind UB with Miami, Kent State and Bowling Green.
The Bulls won their last meeting at Akron on Jan. 13 when Calvin Betts hit a layup with 25 seconds to play. The Zips led, 61-59, with 2:51 to go, but Pierce, who was 6 for 6 on three-pointers, hit two free throws to tie it with 1:27 left and Betts' basket gave the Bulls the win. The Bulls are looking to complete the season sweep of Akron for the first time since the 2003-04 season.