Homestretch

The Basketball season is slowly coming to an end, with about 2 weeks left in the regular season. So far for the Bulls its been an up and down kind of year, luckily on the up as we get towards Cleveland.

The Bulls started out 3 and 3, with devastating home losses to Canisus and Vermont. The Purdue loss was expected, but having 3 early losses kind of took the air out of the Buffalo basketball buzz because any hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament was completely shot. Even the 3 wins up to that point weren't that impressive, having to go to overtime against a terrible Towson team, and not handling Army and Navy they way they were capable of.

The season started to turn around with what seemed to be an impressive win against a Niagara team that always seems to have our number. The game was actually not nearly as close as the score indicated, but I think seeing a loud and energetic crowd at the end of the game showing support gave the Bulls a boost of confidence of how good they can be.
The streak had the Bulls playing 7-1 ball up through the first 8 days of conference play, capping it off with a more than impressive win against the conference favorites, Akron. 3-0 start to conference play got to the Bulls head, and they started to just play awful all around defense.

For 8 straight games the opponents shot better than 50% from the floor, and the Bulls started to look like team that deserved to be at the bottom of the conference. The February 1st home loss Western Michigan really seemed to be the end of the season for Buffalo. Fans stopped coming to games, buzz about this talented team seemed to be lost, and the Bulls just looked completely hopeless. Luckily, a game against Toledo was on the schedule...

The Bulls finally got to the point of the schedule where they could play the worst team in the conference, and get a confidence booster. Buffalo wasn't really that good in this game, but they figured out some kinks defensively, and have played stellar ever since.

4 straight wins for Buffalo is where we stand right now, winning these games by an average of 13 points. More impressively, all 4 of these teams play very different games, and at neither point in any of the games did the Bulls seem overmatched. The only times they played bad over the past 4 games was when they were up by a bunch, and just decided to take it easy, or when teams pretty much banked home 3 pointers...

The past few weeks look good on paper, but is it really all good? Here are my pros and cons for this point in the year.

Pros
1 Defense- I know by the numbers this team isn't a good defensive team, but they have dramatically improved lately, and its not just one player. Everyone on the roster is playing better defense on the floor, from Smiley, Pierce, Boyer, Alston, even Kambi looks alot better defensively than hes looked in the past. I know Watt and Titus still seem to get into foul trouble, but its more about looking comfortable out there, and not losing focus letting your man getting behind you, which both of them seem better at. My personal favorite part about the improved defense is Boyer. From watching him this year, I feel like towards the middle parts of games he would get blown by and try to stay off the the man with the ball. He would do this just to stay out of foul trouble, knowing that hes the only true point guard that would be played, so knowing he needed to be out there on the offensive side of the ball, made him play lazy conservative defense. Over the past few weeks hes done an excellent job playing tough contact defense, without getting into foul trouble, allowing him to run the show on the offensive end.

2. Balanced Offense- Through a lot of parts in the season, the Bulls seemed to just lazily run the offense, not moving alot, and just settling with taking contested 3 pointers hoping they drop. Pierce would rack up big numbers, but the Bulls would still be losing by double digits. As of recently, the Bulls having been doing pretty much everything right with the offense. Good penetration, good vision, good offensive post play, better than average outside shooting, getting players into foul trouble, etc. One game that stood out to me was the win against Eastern Michigan. The Bulls shot better than 66% from the floor, and was looked at by critics as just an outstanding shooting performance, when it was anything but that. That game, the Bulls did an excellent job getting the Ball to the bigs in places they could score and be effective. More importantly, as a team, every shot in the game was a 'good' shot, and a high percentage one, because the offense was run really well by everyone. The incredible shooting performance was a byproduct of an effective college style offense, and everyone in it doing what they had to do.

3. Seniors- We all know that this is a senior latent squad, but I really think the seniors know that its their time to shine, and achieve the ultimate goal. They've all dreamt about making the NCAA tourney since they were little, and with 5 seniors who get significant playing time (6 who actually are playing this year) they all seem to be coming into their own. The top 5 scorers for the team are all seniors, and at the end of games, the 5 players that are always trusted and out on the floor as the game comes to a close is the 5 seniors. I personally like when its Titus out there instead of Smiley for the end of games, because with Smiley out there its pretty much playing 4 guards, and Max. If Titus is out there, its 2 forwards, 2 guards, and Betts who plays in between, but if were in a position where we can give up the size, and go with the ball-handling/better free throw shooting, then by all means have Smiley in there over Titus.
These 5 seniors are also the best free throw shooters on the team, and they all hold onto the ball well/not force bad turnovers, especially late in the game. The most impressive stat that I could possibly pull out, was how Max shoots from the line. He has shot 82% for the year, which is outstanding for any forward in college bball. Also, hes made 39 of his last 44 attempts (89%) and 5 straight games without a missed foul shot (11 for his last 11). Boudreaus strong play gave the Bulls the first 2 wins in the MAC tourney last year, and all signs are pointing towards counting on him this post-season as well. All of the seniors know its their last chance, so I expect ultra-inspired play as the season comes to a close.

Cons
1. Foul Trouble-
Titus and Watt are clearly the 2 most athletic players on the team, and are the only 2 who silence crowds with thunderous dunks. Sadly, both of them seem to get into foul trouble real early, and it seems like just about every game at least one of them have to sit out 15 minutes of the first half because they have foul trouble. When I think of Watt, I want to think 'effective athletic scorer' but the first thing that comes to mind is 'another lazy foul'. When I think of Titus i want to think 'athletic boost offensively and defensively' but the only thing I think of is 'lack of aggressiveness, and touch fouls on defense'. I know when they're seniors theyll both be really effective players who you can count on, but this has to be the year, and when the 2 most athletic players are underclassmen who get into foul trouble, you don't feel as confident.

2. Depth- As of right now there are 8 guys who are part of the regular rotation, all averaging 14+ minutes a game, but the Bulls have failed to find a consistent 9th player. As of right now Barnett averages about 9.5 to 10 minutes a game, but lately he hasn't been played, which clearly shows lack of confidence in him. Filzen and Clifford aren't going to be played any more this year. Kambi has been getting better, but I still don't want him in there at the end of games. Watson has played minutes lately, and has done a good job with them, but a freshman point guard is not who you want as a key depth guy.
As a fan who follows a lot of mid-major basketball, I fully believe having a 9th guy can be that much more effective than having 8. It gives you 5 extra fouls (which is huge if you wanna keep your star players in the game), and give a chance for the regulars to get rest when needed. To me, I think having Barnett playing well and getting good minutes is something that can really help. Since hes played less/not played at all, the Bulls have played really well. On the contrary, during the Bulls 7-1 stretch in the middle of the year he averaged 14.4 minutes a game. It was partially due to the injury to Jawaan, but during that time he clearly was an athletic swingman who has the capability to play excellent defense.
If Barnett was a trustworthy player, the rotation would be 3 true guards, 4 bigmen, and 2 swingmen type players in Betts and Barnett. To me that is the perfect rotation that I want on my team, but if Barnett isn't the guy for the job, its gonna have to be an 8 guy rotation, with a few sparing minutes for other players. I really wished he was that guy, but if we gotta work with 8, then that's how its gotta be. I personally want to see Barnett get good minutes against St Peters since the game means pretty much nothing, hoping he can be trusted when MAC tourney time comes, but if coach decides to just use the regular 8 too keep continuity, then I'm in no position to complain.

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