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UB men can't afford to overlook Eastern Michigan

Defending the home court is said to be key to winning a conference championship in college basketball, because road games are not easily won no matter the league or the opponent.

So far, coach Jim Whitesell’s University at Buffalo men’s team has had more success away from Alumni Arena in conference games (3-1) than at home (2-3). Also in their favor is that they will facing a last-place team, Eastern Michigan (11-10, 1-7 MAC), on Tuesday at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Mich. Game time is 7 p.m.

Still, there is reason to be wary of the Eagles. Coach Rob Murphy’s team is coming off its first victory in conference play. They ended a seven-game losing streak on Saturday with a 61-57 win over Toledo, the team favored to win the MAC West Division, according to the preseason poll.

Also, Eastern has been a tough out lately. Five of the Eagles’ seven conference losses have been by six points or less. Two of their road losses were by three points at Northern Illinois and Bowling Green.

Eastern Michigan may be equipped to combat one of UB’s strengths — rebounding. Buffalo ranked third in the nation in rebounding at 42.27 per contest, behind only North Carolina and New Hampshire, entering play Monday. They were second in offensive boards at 14.95 behind only Portland State. Buffalo had 24 offensive boards against Bowling Green and still lost.

Coming off the bench for the second game in a row, sophomore Josh Mballa of the Bulls had 12 points and 15 rebounds against Bowling Green. That followed 13 points and 17 rebounds at Akron earlier in the week.

Eastern, though, is blessed with good size. Seven-foot center Boubacar Toure, a senior who transferred from Grand Canyon University two years ago, is averaging 10.1 points and 9.2 rebounds a game. Ty Groce, a 6-foot-8-inch junior, leads the team in scoring at 11.1 points and has a 5.4 rebounds per game average. The third starter up front is 6-foot-10-inch junior Thomas Binelli.

Eastern’s backcourt is rangy, too, with 6-foot-5-inch Yeikson Montero (10.4 ppg) and 6-foot-3-inch Darion Spottsville (2.4). Coming off the bench is 6-foot-5-inch guard Noah Morgan (10.7) and 6-foot-10-inch junior forward Jalen King.

UB is coming off a tough 78-77 loss at home to Bowling Green last Friday night. The Bulls’ last shot at a winning basket was blocked, finishing a frustrating night when they blew an 11-point halftime lead, their most in any loss this season.

Because of their home record, road wins have become essential if the Bulls are going to win the MAC East or finish high enough in the standings to gain a first-round bye in the MAC tournament in Cleveland. Only Ball State (4-0) is undefeated in MAC home games. Four league teams, including UB, have three home MAC defeats.

UB will return home for at 9 p.m. Friday night nationally televised (ESPNU) game against MAC West leader Central Michigan. The Bulls won at Central 86-67 on Jan. 18, in probably their strongest performance in a conference game this season. A key MAC game Tuesday night will find East leader Bowling Green (8-1) playing at Central Michigan (5-2).

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