UB honored its seniors Friday evening with a brief ceremony before playing Bowling Green in Alumni Arena, so it would be appropriate to start with them. None of the five has ever lost a Mid-American Conference tournament game, and they would like to keep it rolling when the stakes are raised next week in Cleveland.
Seniors Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner, Raheem Johnson and David Kadiri weren’t on the roster in 2013-14, when Eastern Michigan handed UB its last conference tournament loss under Bobby Hurley. Johnson is the only one among them who played against West Virginia in UB’s first visit to the Big Dance two years ago, but he redshirted last season.
Christian Pino, a senior academically but a junior in terms of eligibility, was honored with the other seniors before the regular season finale. He’s not planning to return after graduating in May. The seldom used, 5-foot-7 crowd favorite could leave his career behind with a rare distinction of being a member of three consecutive MAC championship teams.
The Bulls earned the third seed, and a bye, with their 80-68 victory over Bowling Green and will play the winner of the game between the sixth and 11th seeds. Buffalo has won six straight MAC tourney games and can become the first team in conference history to reach the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons. Imagine, a Buffalo team on the right side of history.
UB finished off the season with an 11-7 record in the conference and 17-14 overall after winning eight of its last 10 games of the regular season, including the final two. The Bulls can expect teams to be gunning for them next week. They’re not going to sneak up on anyone this year, no matter how erratic they had played during the season.
“It’s a confidence builder, honestly,” said Kadiri, who finished with 12 points and was a rebound shy of a double-double. “The target is on our back. We’ve been through this. It’s something that we’ve been through already. We’re undefeated in the championship. We know what to expect. We just have to go there and do what we do – and it’s something we’ve done already.”
The Bulls started ramping up for postseason play with a crisp win Friday. UB built a 15-point lead in the first 7½ minutes, moved the ball effectively, shot well from the perimeter and was never really threatened. If they had any issues, it was their loose, sloppy play when they built comfortable leads late in the first half and in the closing minutes. The scored indicated a closer game than it was.
Hamilton was terrific again for the Bulls in his final game at Alumni Arena. The 6-foot-6 point guard scored a game-high 32 points before leaving to a standing ovation with 47 seconds remaining. He dominated with his usual assortment of long-range bombs, mid-range jumpers and buckets inside. He’ll be a handful next week, as he has been for two seasons.
Kadiri led the way early, Johnson tied a school record in Division I with eight blocked shots. CJ Massinburg added 11 points for the Bulls. UB is back on track with two straight victories after losing to Kent State and Akron.
None of it matters, of course, if UB waltzes into Quicken Loans Arena believing it will coast past teams the way it did Friday and puts up a stinker. The Bulls can expect much stiffer competition in the tourney than what Bowling Green offered Friday.
“We had the two losses to Kent and Akron but, for the most part, I think we played good in the second half of the season,” Hamilton said. “I’m confident. We’re the defending champs so everybody is going to try to beat us. I feel, if we play to the best of our abilities, we’re going to win the game.”
Last year, UB had lost five of seven games before finishing the regular season with an 87-83 victory over Bowling Green. The Bulls finished the regular season with a 17-14 record overall, 10-8 in the MAC. Even though they won the conference tournament the previous year, doubts lingered about them repeating.
UB shot the lights out in the first two games of the conference tournament and knocked off top-seed Akron in the championship game. They validated their success under Hurley by returning to the NCAAs last year under first-year coach Nate Oats. And they gave third-seeded Miami a solid test before falling, 79-72.
Folks, there’s a reason your NCAA bracket is usually blown to bits before you ever get a chance to brag at the office. Basketball is unpredictable when you get into tournament play. UB needs to win the MAC tourney for a third straight year to reach the NCAAs. They have no chance of getting an at-large bid.
The Bulls find comfort knowing their experience has been positive. At times this season, their MAC tourney success worked against them. They took things for granted, as if they were entitled to win games. They played shoddy defense in the middle of the season and failed to effectively move the ball.
Now everything needs to come together. You can make the argument that teams playing their best going into the conference tourney increase their chances of winning, but it’s true only to a degree. A few well-placed losses late in the season can serve as a reminder that teams can’t coast against anyone in a balanced league.
If the Bulls forget, they have a handful of seniors to remind them.
“We’ve been there,” Oats said. “You can’t have a bad night. Shoot, you have to be on. You can have a great year and have one bad night, and it’s over. You got to bring it every night down there. We know what we have to do. We’re heading into that stretch where we’ve been pretty good. We just have to bring it every night.”