The real test came Feb. 15, the day after the University at Buffalo looked shaken after a one-point loss to Central Michigan in Alumni Arena. Bobby Hurley put his troops through a difficult practice, the kind of workout that would define his team and they would remember for years to come.
Hurley wasn’t really sure how his team would respond. The Bulls were 16-9 overall and 6-6 in the Mid-American Conference and reached a point in the season in which they would come together or risk falling apart. It was a make-or-break moment, and their coach was pushing them to the limit.
And they refused to buckle.
The Bulls are a different team now because they became a tougher, more mature team on that day a few weeks ago. They have evolved into a more cohesive and selfless group than they were earlier in the season, no longer bogged down by trivial matters such as individual scoring and playing time.
“Coach really gave it to us,” reserve swingman Rodell Wigginton said. “He really put it in our mind that the MAC championship was right around the corner. We were still in the fight. I feel like everybody started clicking. Everybody noticed it was right there ahead of us and we can get that goal. We can reach it.”
UB continued rolling along Tuesday in a 93-66 win over a struggling Ohio team that is left playing out the string. The Bulls earned their fifth straight win and improved to 20-9 overall and 11-6 in the conference. Buffalo closes the regular season Friday night when they return to Alumni Arena against Bowling Green.
And then it gets interesting.
The Bulls are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. They would clinch a berth if they win the conference tourney next week in Cleveland. But if they fell short and lost in the conference championship game, they would still have an argument for an at-large bid.
UB was 31st in RPI rankings going in the game Tuesday night, just behind Michigan State and ahead of Oregon. The MAC didn’t have another team in the top 50. The rankings don’t determine who goes to the Big Dance, but they’re a big factor when the selection committee makes its decisions.
Buffalo is ranked that high largely because it played top-ranked Kentucky and sixth-ranked Wisconsin. The NCAA should remember that UB was beating both teams in the second half before succumbing to more depth and talent. Certainly, it’s worth something. Regardless, UB is worth the price of admission.
The Bulls had a shaky start Tuesday but never lost their composure. Remember, this is the same team that beat a good team in Kent State on the road Saturday with leading scorer Justin Moss scoring only six points. He had his offensive game back in order against Ohio when he scored 22 points and grabbed 17 rebounds.
Buffalo won the game Tuesday in the first 20 minutes with tight defense and pulled away in the second half with near-flawless offense. The second half turned into Showtime, and UB finished with 23 assists and only six turnovers in the game.
“We got clobbered in every way imaginable,” Ohio coach Saul Phillips said. “They played like a team that’s playing for a championship. We played like a team that’s at the bottom of the MAC East.”
The Bulls are something to watch in the open court, and they’re a matchup nightmare on the perimeter. Guards Lamonte Bearden, Shannon Evans and Jarryn Skeete were a combined eight for 13 from three-point range. Bearden and Evans combined for 19 assists and two turnovers. Wigginton finished with a career-high 20.
Evans was terrific Tuesday with 16 points and a career-high 11 assists. He’s among the most exciting players in the conference, and he put on a show against Ohio. He set up Moss once with a pass between his legs and another with a lob before a pretty pass to Ford for a monster jam and a 77-48 lead with about eight minutes left.
And it was over.
Hurley has noticed subtle signs that the chemistry could be just right, which makes the Bulls a dangerous team going into the conference tournament. They’re top eight players are showing more confidence, particularly during the winning streak. UB had won three games or more five times this season.
“You don’t know which direction you’re going to go when you’re .500” in the conference, Hurley said. “The guys decided that this is the kind of season they want to have and not go in a different direction. I’m proud of them for accepting that challenge. They’re a fun team to coach, a fun team to watch.”
Buffalo needs to make sure it doesn’t get too full of itself, however. Evans is an electric guard, but he let his exuberance get the better of him in the first half. He was issued a technical foul for celebrating a 37-25 lead and preparing to throw the knockout punch. Raheem Johnson was ejected just before intermission.
Rest assured Hurley has his team under control leading into the conference tournament. The only uncertainty now is whether Hurley can continue pushing the right buttons. He has proven to be more than a capable coach. He’s figuring out when to push and pull back on his players.
Buffalo’s struggles are a distant memory these days. Now they need to keep riding their confidence, their chemistry – and their coach – for all they’re worth.
“We’re playing our best right now,” Hurley said. “It’s good to feel that, and I feel that now. At times, in the middle of our conference schedule, I didn’t always know which team was going to play. Now I have a great feel of who they are. They’re determined and they’re thinking about winning. And that’s all they’re thinking about.”