There's obviously more buzz surrounding the UB Men's Basketball team, just two wins from their first-ever MAC Championship, but of course it's championships week for the women as well.
In fact, UB is the only school in the MAC who earned byes in both the Men's and Women's Basketball Tournaments.
By the end of the season, I've gotten tired of talking so much about the women, so I got in touch with Sloane Martin, the radio Voice of the Bulls, for a little back-and-forth. Of course, very few people anywhere have seen more of the Bulls than Sloane, and if you're unable to watch video during work tomorrow, tuning into her play-by-play is a perfectly good substitute.
Read on for my questions to Sloane, her answers and a little bit of my own follow-up opinion.
Bull Run: Sloane, UB's played strong in big games: the Akron, Toledo, WMU rematches, and Ball State. After the big deficit, they showed late against Ohio they can run with the Bobcats, but they've also spent a lot of time flat this year and need to come up big for 40 minutes for three games now. How do they do that? Could the magnitude of the stage be enough?
Sloane Martin: There's no doubt that a big Achilles heel for this team is getting off to slow starts, and it's something I think they've combated well during the three game winning streak to end the regular season.
I think the stage speaks for itself for this team because of the upperclassmen presence and their leadership. Also, head coach Felisha Legette-Jack is a great motivator and has done a great job of handling expectations and getting the team back after tough losses.
Speaking of Coach Jack, we've seen her lean more heavily on her starters later in the season, but we also saw Mariah Suchan get some time against Akron. Do you think Mariah or some other deeper bench option gets time against CMU/WMU or later in the tournament, or will FLJ run mostly with her eight-woman rotation?
SM: Well, the Bulls didn't find their consistent starting lineup until mid-January -- which, hey, it was just in time and has worked out really well for this team -- but that also means it might be hard to tell how exactly the rest of the lineup will shake out. Three games in three days after a long season is rough on any team and we've seen multiple times this season where someone will come off the bench and be a real spark and be the difference.
I can imagine someone like Karin Moss -- when she's given a role and that role is to come in and disrupt the opposing offense, get some steals, take a three if it's right there -- she could be really important for UB off the bench. I think her speed and defense for the opponent, not really knowing when she's going to come in, could be effective. Moss is just an example of how Coach Jack's bench can be utilized, but three games in three days I think creates a different scenario, one we haven't seen them prepare for this season.
BR: What of Joanna Smith? Earlier in the year before I left Buffalo, Coach Jack praised her in practice and lamented that in games the shots weren't falling. Now, she's scored 15+ in three straight. Has anything changed from your perspective?
SM: For Joanna it's all about confidence. She hit a career-high against Manhattan before Christmas and laid low a bit until that Akron game. Perhaps it's a combination of having an established spot in the starting lineup and knowing the coaching staff has confidence in her to look for her shot. It also has to do with how teams are playing Kristen Sharkey the second time through the MAC. She's been double and triple teamed along the baseline with opponents forcing her to be a facilitator. That's opened things up for other players on the floor and Joanna has been a beneficiary of that.
SM: No one on the coaching staff denies that it's a weakness. It comes up on almost every postgame interview I conduct with assistant coach Blake DuDonis because I know he's monitoring that.
I think the Bulls fall into three-point shooting because in many games this season they were playing from behind after a slow start. Teams have also been playing a lot of zone against the Bulls and doubling Sharkey which has opened up the three-pointer -- opponents want them to do exactly that by crowding the paint.
But I do think that shot selection has improved especially of late. Instead of taking a three after four passes, they go deep in the shot clock and make an effort for the extra pass, which has really helped.
From courtside, how has Mackenzie looked to you lately? Early in the year we were told she would be compromised all year by that ankle, but she had a great run after the concussion that only cooled recently.
SM: Mackenzie has really taken on the role of sixth woman and obviously the rest of the MAC noticed with her award this season. I really don't think we can underestimate the impact of her ankle over a long season. Basketball is so long, so tough and so physical. I think she looks the best still at the end of the game when she's powering her way to the free throw line off a fastbreak or hitting the big shot. She has that presence to close.
SM: Coach Jack has says she wants to use that slight as motivation -- that even the Bulls' best player can be overlooked. Not many other players have to deal with the double and triple teams she faces, too, and how physical teams are with her which I know is another reason they were thrown off by the decision. If anything I think the team can rally behind it and play for her, show voters they were wrong.
BR: It makes perfect sense to hear that, though to be honest I figured the tack would be "let's put it behind us and focus on what we can control."
I'm also less annoyed, though still sad, that Stephanie Reid didn't get onto the All-Freshman team.
SM: Stephanie Reid, well, she has three years ahead. If you've listened to a broadcast this year from me, you've heard good things about Stephanie because of her instincts, confidence, composure and competitiveness at the point guard position. She may have been overlooked this year, but I would be surprised if that happens again.
Last one: Last year the Bulls earned a #4 seed and exited quickly despite four players in double digits against Ball State. Who's the key player for UB to move on to Ohio? If it's Sharkey, can I ask for another?
SM: I'm going to go with Reid for this one because she's a freshman and everything runs through her and this is her first postseason. The offense looked entirely different when she started playing regular minutes and she's a huge part of the Bulls being where they are this season -- but I argue that she should look for her own shot more.
She's so pass-first that she doesn't shoot unless there's a giant neon sign telling her to practically. She had 21 points against Akron and looked tremendous doing it. I think if she's feeling it -- and not forcing it -- she could really come up big for this team. She has the talent to both score and set up her teammates.
Huge thanks to Sloane, who I got to know a bit during the football season and is a wonderful announcer. I usually watch Sal Capaccio and Amy Audibert during home games on ESPN3, but even if video for a road game is available, I usually end up on her radio feed.
If you're able during the day, give the women a listen tomorrow. They're not quite a frontrunner like the men, but if they're able to put their best game together for a few days, there's no reason they can't take the championship.