TOLEDO, Ohio – If the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team needed a boost to its NCAA Tournament résumé, it certainly earned one with an 88-82 win Friday at Toledo.
The win against the Rockets at Savage Arena was a notably different game from when the Bulls routed the Rockets 110-80 more than a month ago at Alumni Arena.
The No. 25 Bulls overcame a 1-for-11 shooting effort in the first five minutes and exercised their collective depth when some of its star players got into foul trouble in the second half. But Nick Perkins’ 26 points and 10 rebounds helped the N0. 25 Bulls (22-3, 10-2 MAC) earn a key victory at a time when the season comes down to a matter of games, and when quality wins can come at a premium in pursuit of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in March.
“These games are really important, and February and March are when you want to play your best basketball,” said Perkins, who tied a career high for points in a single game. “That’s something we’ve got to get back to. We took some tough losses in the league. Around this time, we want to play good basketball down the stretch and win some games.”
UB coach Nate Oats knows the win helped his team as it prepares for the postseason, both from a competition standpoint and from a confidence standpoint.
But Oats also made his first attempt to lobby for multiple tournament bids for the MAC, which last placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament in 1999. Kent State earned the automatic bid as the MAC champion that year, and Miami (Ohio) was an at-large selection.
“There’s talk of (Toledo) being on the bubble and I think it’s well-deserved talk,” said Oats, whose program eyes its fourth NCAA Tournament bid in five seasons. “It’d be great to see a couple teams from the MAC get in (the NCAA Tournament) between us, and Toledo and (Bowling Green), and then you go down the list. Kent State’s beat two high majors in nonconference, and I think the league’s better than it’s been since I’ve been in it.”
The Rockets, meanwhile, remain a bubble team. Had Toledo beat the Bulls on Friday, UB’s chances at earning an at-large bid wouldn’t have disappeared, but it would have been a strike against the Bulls.
UB moved up a spot to No. 22 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings as of Saturday morning, while Toledo remains No. 57. A win on the road against a team ranked in the top 75 in the NET is classified as a Quadrant 1 win. The Bulls currently have two Quadrant 1 wins and one Quadrant 1 loss, as the NET rankings change on a daily basis.
The Bulls are tied for first place in the MAC East Division with Bowling Green (18-7, 10-2). The Falcons defeated Northern Illinois 87-67 on Saturday in DeKalb, Ill.
The Bulls approach a stretch in which they play four of their final six games at Alumni Arena as they prepare for the MAC Tournament.
The Bulls are 10-0 at Alumni Arena this season and open a three-game homestand at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Ohio, then host Kent State on Friday and Akron on Feb. 26. After games March 1 at Miami (Ohio) and March 5 at Ohio, the Bulls close the regular season March 8 at Alumni Arena against Bowling Green.
The top four teams in the conference earn first-round byes for the MAC Tournament, regardless of their finish in the East and West divisions. The MAC Tournament begins March 11 with first-round games at campus sites, then moves to Quicken Loans Arena for the quarterfinals on March 14, the semifinals March 15 and the championship game March 16.
The 68-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced March 17.
UB could create some necessary separation in the standings and wrap up the MAC East Division between now and the end of the regular season. Or, the Bulls could host Bowling Green in a game that could decide the MAC East title and seeding in the MAC Tournament.
The next six games will be vital for the Bulls in that pursuit – and those games will be much like the game UB played Friday at Toledo.
“Coach has been on us about playing our best basketball at the end of the season,” said UB guard Jeremy Harris, who had 10 rebounds and scored 11 points against the Rockets, the second time in the last three games he’s scored in double figures. “We slipped, with two (losses) already in conference, so we’re just trying to finish in the conference on a winning streak and playing our best basketball.”