Almost 24 hours before UB tipped off against Ohio on Wednesday night, the Bulls were dealt an unexpected advantage in the Mid-American Conference standings. Miami (Ohio) knocked off Kent State, leaving UB in sole possession of second place. The door had opened.
To finish in the top two is to get a bye straight to the MAC Tournament semifinals. Place third or fourth and there's an additional tourney game to win in order to claim the title. We could argue the merits of a five-day layoff versus a six-day layoff, but it wouldn't be much of a debate. Who wouldn't take an extra day of rest over a quarterfinal game against East Division brothers Miami or Bowling Green or a tall, physical Western Michigan team that will loom dangerous? It's called March Madness for a reason. The less risk the better.
The road to the semifinals had suddenly been cleared of its most formidable obstacle, the Golden Flashes. Win out and the Bulls would be a step from the championship game in Cleveland. Taking three of the last four -- with three games at Alumni Arena -- might also be good enough to get the job done.
But the gift UB was handed by Miami was swiped right from under its nose. Ohio University entered Alumni Arena all business and UB was no match for the Bobcats' energy level or their hunger on the offensive boards. Ohio won emphatically, 88-77, and suddenly it's a three-way tie for second place with the Bobcats having joined the party.
The final score doesn't mislead. UB was no match on this night, although there's an argument that what momentum they could muster was taken away by outside forces. A Titus Robinson rebound dunk with 7:23 remaining had trimmed a UB deficit from 15 down to 62-57. Robinson was on his way back to the defensive end when official James Ferrari, almost as an afterthought, whistled him for a technical for hanging on the rim. Ohio's Nick Kellogg hit two free throws. The game-long dagger that was Walter Offutt followed with a three. In a blink the Bulls went from down five to down 10.
It was a brutal call by Ferrari, one you almost never see anymore. And one of his officiating partners seemed to agree. A short while later Jim Schipper whistled Ohio's Reggie Keely for an innocuous rim hang that rang as an obvious attempt to make up for his partner's overzealousness. But by then the point was moot. UB came out of that exchange down 11. If it was a make-up call, the game situation gave the Bulls less than equal value.
Would it have made a difference? We'll never know. But it shouldn't cloud the fact the Bulls had it handed to them big time by an Ohio team that has always been a tough out down the stretch since John Groce has been on the bench. Two years ago the Bobcats came out of nowhere at season's end, ran the long table to the MAC title and then knocked Georgetown out of the NCAAs. It appears they're gearing up again.
What UB does better than anyone in the MAC -- and better than most teams in the country relative to the competition -- is rebound. They were thwacked on the glass in the first half of Saturday's BracketBuster loss at South Dakota State. They were hammered again by the Bobcats, a team that came in barely on the plus side in rebounding margin. Ohio grabbed an astounding 21 offensive boards and scored 24 second-chance points. They won the rebounding battle, 42-34, overall and scored 11 points off the fast break. They succeeded in upping the tempo of the game, oft-times with UB's cooperation even though the Bulls would rather play at a more measured pace.
The Bulls came back from South Dakota State hoping that 21-point defeat was a game they had purged from their system. Turns out that wasn't the case. Once again they played straight into the hands of the opposition. Once again their greatest strength was negated. Maybe it's no longer a question of where they finish. Maybe it's time to wonder if, having lost three straight, they have any finish in them at all.