Women's Tennis' trip to the NCAA Tournament a while back ended in a 4-0 sweep at the hands of UCLA. On a team scale, Swimming and Diving ends with the MAC Championships, so the UB men didn't face off against Georgia, Texas, and Cal when they won their title.
But at some point this week, as I thought about Men's Basketball's inaugural trip into the NCAA Tournament tomorrow, I also thought about two other firsts: the 2009 International Bowl and the first round of this past autumn's NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament.
In both games, Buffalo finally broke through above the conference level and quickly learned how much further distance there was to actually winning at that level. Now, I can't speak for anyone else, but I had higher hopes for football than for women's soccer in these games.
That said, I have been lucky enough to be in person for each, and it was still surprising just how stark the difference was just in each team's physical ability. I don't think Donald Brown did anything special that day in the Rogers Centre but run through massive holes built by his O-line, and Penn State's execution was pinpoint all evening last November, though I think UB looks a lot better if Jackie Hall isn't concussed going into the half.
Anyway, I think there's (at least) three factors that went into those disparities, and I hope that each of the three is minimized somewhat in tomorrow's basketball scenario.
Stratification of talent
In football and (to an even more extreme degree) women's soccer, you see a sharper disparity of talent from the top to the bottom of Division I. In 2014, UB could have beaten a great number of tournament teams but got paired with a top-ten squad in Penn State. In 2008, the football Bulls won and lost a number of close games against teams of undoubtedly lesser quality than their eventual bowl opponents.
In men's basketball, though, I think this is less of an issue. Goodness knows larger mismatches have fallen in favor of the underdogs; there's an entire industry built around it. This particular UB team hasn't gotten a chance against any beatable top-50 teams, but we've both seen them play elite competition and we've seen other MAC schools make noise against power-conference squads.
Strength of Schedule as preparation
I kind of alluded to this above, but in 2008 UB Football played a ton of games against teams below Connecticut's level. In 2014, Women's Soccer played one game against a team of Penn State's caliber, but did it starting a midfielder in goal. Meanwhile, each opponent was accustomed to tougher tests each and every game.
I think 2015 Men's Basketball is closer to their UB predecessors than not, but I would also place hope in the way they played against Kentucky and Wisconsin when they got the chance: loose and with nothing to lose. It's the third-most overused tidbit about this team in previews this week, but Buffalo did lead each at the half. Maybe you hadn't heard.
Novelty of the Stage
This is of course what got me thinking about this in the first place, but I think it's a little different for basketball here than the comparisons. Any one individual's championships experience - whether it's Bobby Hurley, Lamonte Bearden, or Will Regan - carries a little more collective weight than in football. And sure, right now the Bulls are getting a lot of attention, but it's frankly not nearly as much as the football team did.
The Bulls having been close before makes this success less out-of-the-blue than their predecessors. Perhaps I'm grasping at straws, but once again, I'm going to bring it back to Kentucky and Wisconsin. I'm confident that the environments there will prove to be more uniformly hostile than tomorrow's in Columbus.
Regardless, men's hoops is the third team in six years and change to advance this far for the first time. In some ways it's hard to avoid remembering how much of a wake-up call those first forays above the MAC were, but in others it sure seems like UB isn't quite playing from that far behind.