Bulls fans should be feeling pretty good about last night's 88-62 victory over the Niagara Purple Eagles. For one, it's yet another win over a Big 4 opponent this year, and Niagara - my personal least favorite of the three - at that.
For two, I don't think, despite the lead that passed 30 for a stretch before settling at 26 at the final buzzer, that the Bulls are yet playing their best basketball. Following UB's win over Drexel, Coach Hurley anticipated the offense taking big steps forward over the course of the next month. Yesterday, the display staggered second-year Niagara coach Chris Casey, who lamented that the Purple Eagles "didn't respond to their physicality," and repeated several times what may become his mantra this season: "Gotta score."
And yet, I think UB could have played better. Think back to the Kentucky game: the Bulls created high-percentage shots and barely missed in converting them. UB gets the ball into the paint often, but doesn't always convert on their first opportunity. It's more of an eye-test type thing than anything else, but the team looks comfortably loose. Even in the second half, when the offense clicked to a 64% shooting percentage, it didn't feel like top gear. Combine that with the anticipated improvement in executing Hurley's offense, and this team could be very, very good by season's end.
In fact, they're already very good. The RPI numbers are no doubt inflated by UB's time on the road and strength of schedule bump from Kentucky, but this team at 7-2 has the best record through nine games of any UB squad going back to 2005-06, when the Bulls started 8-1.
A few other notes from the game and the press conference:
Is Xavier Ford the perfect Sixth Man?
Much of the postgame chatter surrounded the excellent play of Xavier Ford, who flew out of the gate with 10 points and 5 rebounds in the first half against Drexel, and then had 9 and 8 in the first stanza last night. He ended up with 11 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for his first-ever double double. In the first few minutes he was the only player really clicking through the sloppiness, and was part of an early infusion off the bench that scored 10 of UB's first 15 points.
Postgame, Shannon Evans praised his leadership and Hurley his attitude, noting that the senior "does so many things that contribute to winning" and that he's "part of the best defensive team I can put out on the floor." It's certainly a great start to the season for a highly-praised recruit who took a long time to look comfortable on the floor.
The dumbest rule in basketball visits Amherst.
UB's Shannon Evans was assessed a technical foul for dunking in the final 20 minutes of warmups, when the refs had made it to the floor. This is the second time in a week college basketball has seen the rule enforced, but it didn't come back to bite the Bulls as it did North Florida six days ago. I am not sure if the rule exists out of timewasting or sportsmanship concerns, but no one really thinks it's necessary. At the same time, it's not hard to follow, and I'm sure we won't see it happen to UB again.
Unless it's the women's team. If anyone on the women's team can dunk, do it every game and give up the points. It would be awesome.
Niagara and UB two sides of the coaching carousel coin.
I can't take credit for this thought, but last night's game saw two coaches dealing with very different issues in their second season after a change. I've written before about UB's extremely fast turnover thanks to an infusion of ready-to-play upperclass transfers. Chris Casey on the other hand is working with an extremely young roster that was gutted by transfers after the departure of Joe Mihalich.
Playing from ahead.
For the third straight game, there was only a single lead change as the Bulls gave up the first basket and then did not trail again. Against Niagara UB trailed for 3:54, but have trailed for only 1:26 total in their four other wins in the last month. Much like the 2013 football team, UB is getting the lead and barely ever relinquishing it. It's a fun way to win games that inspires confidence in the team going forward.
UB is now off for the holiday and won't return home until 3 January, when they play Cornell. Before that, they travel to take on Wisconsin on 28 December, and Binghamton two days later.