The remarkable regular season of University at Buffalo forward Justin Moss was recognized in a big way Wednesday.
Now UB will hold its breath for the next two days in the hope that Moss will be ready to make the postseason a remarkable one.
Moss, the 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior from Detroit, was named MAC player of the year Wednesday morning. Then Wednesday afternoon, he injured his right ankle near the end of practice and had to limp off the Alumni Arena court.
UB coach Bobby Hurley downplayed the injury after practice.
“I’m looking at it like it’s a non-issue,” Hurley said. “He’ll get treatment and I think he’ll be fine. That’s what I was told by our trainers.”
Moss was hurt making a baseline drive to the basket and went to the floor. There was no contact with a teammate, but he was down for a few minutes before limping off to the training room. Hurley characterized it as a mild sprain.
Said Hurley: “Very. Mild. It looked worse, because Justin went down. But we have to be super conservative when something like that happens.”
Moss led the MAC in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game.
What a difference a year made. Moss averaged just nine minutes and 3.8 points a game last year while riding the bench behind Javon McCrea, who won the 2014 MAC player of the year award.
He helped turn what was supposed to be a rebuilding year into a successful, 21-9 campaign. UB is the No. 2 seed in the MAC Tournament and is awaiting its opponent in a semifinal game, set for 9 p.m. Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“He’s obviously the biggest surprise in the league, and I mean that in a positive way in that he came out of nowhere,” said Kent State coach Rob Senderoff. “Everybody thought Buffalo might fall off a little bit with McCrea graduating. They’re certainly as good and probably better ... which is amazing considering how good McCrea was for them for four years.”
Moss ranks 39th in the nation in scoring and 29th in rebounding. He’s 12th in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He’s 17th in the nation in free-throw attempts. He’s ninth in the nation in field-goal percentage (.528) among players with 350 attempts or more.
“It’s a great improvement over where I came from last year, being on the bench and getting nine minutes a game,” Moss said on Tuesday. “It’s a great award individually, but we’re still trying to get that MAC championship.”
“He’s been an anchor for us down the stretch in games,” Hurley said. “We look to get him the ball as much as possible. We’re one of the highest free-throw shooting teams in the country, primarily because of Justin. He’s made the transition of losing a key component last year very easy for me.”
The importance for UB of having Moss at 100 percent or close to it is seen in how the Bulls have relied on the consistency of his production. Moss has scored in double figures in 27 of 30 games and grabbed five or more rebounds in 27 of 30 games.
Moss’ strength helped him lead the MAC in offensive rebounding, grabbing 2.9 a game. His strength also is a reason he gets fouled so much.
His athleticism has allowed him to convert within 7 feet of the basket. Moss scores on a lot of double-pumps, leaners and bank shots that require deft touch.
“It’s about how hard you’re playing, the hustle,” Moss said. “You don’t have to be great to get offensive rebounds or defensive rebounds. You need to just have a head for the ball and something that motivates you to get you going, not necessarily scoring all the time. Getting in there having toughness, I think I bring that every day. I’m big and strong, so I try to use that to my advantage.”
Better touch on mid-range jump shots is probably the biggest improvement Moss has made the past two years, and it has made him much tougher to defend. He has worked hard with UB assistant coach Levi Watkins on that part of his game.
“He’s worked on me with my mid-range jumper so that could become another element of my game,” Moss said. “I’m big, but I’m not going to be able to bully everybody, especially if they’re playing off me. So that has helped my game.”
Moss’ unusual path to UB is well documented. He played for UB assistant coach Nate Oats in high school and originally committed to Toledo. But his college career was delayed by the discovery of a heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which a portion of the heart muscle is thickened.
He had Implantable Cardioverter Defibrilator placed in his chest in 2011. The small device can detect when an abnormal heartbeat is forming and automatically shock the heart to help it get back into rhythm. Moss joined UB after one year of junior college. Last year he was one of at least four men’s players in Division I playing with an ICD.
Moss becomes the fourth UB player to win the award and the third in the last four years. He joins McCrea (2014), Mitchell Watt (2012) and Turner Battle (2005) as MAC honorees from UB. Moss received 21 of 27 first-place votes.
The MAC announced that Central Michigan’s Keno Davis won the coach of the year award.
Central Michigan was picked for fifth out of six in the MAC’s West Division but finished as the No. 1 seed in the conference. Central Michigan defeated UB twice during the regular season.
News columnist Jerry Sullivan contributed to this report.