No Buffalo team began their season this year with higher expectations than Men's Tennis. It's easy in retrospect with championships in Women's Soccer and Men's Basketball to look to other program, but it's true.
The Bulls were picked as the MAC favorite in the preseason poll. They've got the reigning MAC Player of the Year. And after a grueling March schedule and a few more losses, they're 0-2 in the MAC and on a six-match losing streak.
So what's going on?
January and February went well for the Bulls. It was perhaps a slower start than I expected, but through two months UB was 8-3 with a 2-1 record in three close 4-3 matches. Losses came against two ranked programs in Dartmouth (7-0) and Central Florida (4-0), and in a close one to Yale (4-3). The biggest issue early was the Bulls putting themselves behind the eight-ball in the opening doubles sets, and even that issue settled down after a 1-2 start to the season.
March was always going to be tough, with four road trips to four nationally-ranked opponents on the docket. The first, a 4-3 loss to Princeton, was encouraging. UB stayed within a break in each of their doubles set losses, won three singles matches, and forced third sets in two of their losses. After the match, Nickell felt good; "We have to do a better job of maintaining breaks in doubles, but other than that, there was nothing else we could have done better."
In the three matches following, Buffalo couldn't find that groove again, and lost to Brown, Cornell, and Harvard by an aggregate score of 19-2. Four losses to those four programs was not the biggest surprise, and at that point UB hit April with only comparatively easier MAC opponents left.
Since then, nothing has gone right. In the first week of April, UB's dropped a pair of 5-2 matches to Binghamton and Western Michigan. One of those is a little more surprising than the other.
Truth be told, I'd feel ok if UB were sitting 1-1 in either combination. Either Buffalo dropped a match to a MAC power, or they bounced back from a bad loss with a strong win. But 0-2 means that the Bulls are back against the wall.
So what happened?
The Binghamton loss was a case of UB failing to pull out critical points. Buffalo was 0-2 in the doubles sets, but both losses came 7-6 in tiebreakers. The unfinished set was also abandoned at 6-6. In singles play got points only from the #5 and #6 slots, but three of the top four matches went three sets, and UB couldn't convert any. The Bearcats simply out-gutted the Bulls.
Western Michigan was a tougher opponent, and it shows. UB actually claimed the doubles point with some room to spare, but the Broncos won the first three singles matches at #1, #4, and #6 to force a big comeback. Johnathan Hannestad won his third set 6-4, but Damien David and Sebastien Ionescu each dropped their third sets 7-6 in tiebreakers.
If you're reading quickly, Buffalo hasn't earned a point from any of its top four singles slots yet. To some extent that's small sample size, but regardless, it needs to change for the team to find success.
UB is not far from 1-1 in the MAC, and a much calmer Bull Run editor, right now. A little bit of luck and little better play, and the Bulls very well could be 2-0. But they're 0-2 and in a bit of a pickle.
The MAC moved to a team bracket in 1999, and since 2013 has allowed just the top four seeds, rather than the entire conference, a shot at the title. In the conference championships, UB's they've done it all except win the whole thing. In 2010 and 2012, the Bulls were the #1 seed but fell in the final. 2014 saw the Bulls advance to the championship match from the #4 seed, only to lose by the narrowest of margins: a third-set tiebreaker in the final singles match to break a 3-3 tie in the team score.
In fact, whether by virtue of winning a first-round match (pre-2013) or by earning a top-four seed, UB has advanced to the semifinals in five straight seasons. And whether from the #1 or the #4 spot, they've shown they can get into the final. To keep their championship hopes alive, all they need to do is get in.
At a minimum, that means hopping two teams in front of them with three matches to go. Unsurprisingly, Buffalo sits last at 0-2, but both Ball State and Toledo are 1-1 with upcoming matches against the Bulls. Binghamton is also strangely 2-2 already.
|Western Michigan||2 - 1||@ Ball, Toledo|
|Northern Illinois||2 - 1||@ Toledo, @ Buffalo|
|Binghamton||2 - 2||Ball State|
|Ball State||1 - 1||WMU, @ Buffalo, @ Bing|
|Toledo||1 - 1||NIU, @ Buffalo, @ WMU|
|Buffalo||0 - 2||@ Toledo, Ball, NIU|
It's completely feasible, and totally necessary, that UB win their next two matches. At that point they would be certainly in a tie with Binghamton, and would perhaps have some wiggle room for fourth ahead of Ball State and/or Toledo, perhaps not. Looking farther ahead, it's entirely possible to sneak into the tournament with a 2-3 record, but it would be very tough for Buffalo to get to 3-2 and be left out.
In 10 days, we'll know it all. The Bulls' remaining matches are this coming Sunday at Toledo followed by a pair of home matches next weekend: Ball State on Friday and NIU on Sunday.