After a series of recent dominant performances against teams from the second tier of the MAC, the UB Men’s Basketball team stepped up in class on Friday night, taking on league leading Toledo. It was the most recent test in an up and down season as Buffalo continues to feel it’s way through the post-Oats era. Unfortunately, these tests are pass/fail and the Bulls failed this one, dropping an 80-70 decision to the Rockets.
The stage was set. National TV, game at home, starters fully rested and team on a roll, having won the previous three games by an average of about 25. You got the sense that the Bulls had found their footing, seemingly having finally settled on roles for the starting lineup and the bench rotation and were ready to reclaim what has been their perch atop the league for the last handful of years. With about 5 minutes left, that was all right in front of them. Ahead 61-59 after a Jayvon Graves layup, Buffalo maintained a lead taken with a dominant 14-0 run through the middle of the second half. The junior class that has taken the mantle this season was ready to come of age and win the program’s sixth straight over Toledo, the top program from the West Division, owned recently by Buffalo.
(I’d be remiss not to mention the run was kicked off by two made FTs by Segu off a Rollins tech for taunting Graves after he was posterized by Setrick Millner; go find the video clip)
Then it all came apart. Potential MAC-POTY senior guard Marreon Jackson hit a three when lost on a switch to set off a 12-0 run only ended by an Mballa free throw with 1:25 left. By then the outcome was decided, regardless of the traded baskets and free throws down the stretch. That three minute stretch where the experience, poise, mental toughness and execution by Toledo so exceeded that of the Bulls, was so frustrating because it was only the latest chapter in a book of poor performances in the closing minutes of close games. The talent, athletic ability and pedigree of the core of UB’s roster makes it possible to dream on them running through the conference and into the Big Dance the way they did for a couple years with CJ, Nick, Oats and Co., but their as yet developed ability to execute down the stretch of games against good teams prevents them from reaching the ceiling so many see.
The numbers? There are now six teams each above and below .500 in the MAC. Against the other five teams above, UB is now 0-5.
It is easy to point to coaching when patterns like this arise, and I won’t absolve Jim Whitesell of blame. It’s also apparent that the team seems uncertain of what sets to run for whom when the chips are down. They’ve had different guys facilitate in the final minutes of close games with varying results. Early on, Jayvon Graves was the obvious choice to handle those responsibilities, but for all of the well rounded value he adds, this role didn’t seem to suit him. The three members of the junior core have all had their turns since. None of these options have proved successful.
This is sometimes simply part of the process of a team learning how to play with each other so the team can be at least the sum of its parts. Can they learn this? Yes, but time is running out for them to do so this season.
When We Knew it Was Decided
What brought this contrast into such sharp focus was the team on the other bench. Led by their senior backcourt the Rockets were ready for the final stanza and attacked it. Jackson followed his three with another driving layup and then a steal of an inbounds and runout. That solo 7-0 spurt put the Bulls down 5 and Spencer Littleson’s dagger three probably ended the last hopes of the home squad.
Overall, UB’s backcourt did not have their finest showing, combining for only 22 points on 8-33 (1-12 3pt) shooting in 76 minutes, with 6 TOs. Ronaldo Segu had five of those and a couple of other bad shot choices had the same effect. Graves was 0-6 from deep and 2 of his 4 FGs came after the outcome was largely decided.
Josh Mballa was his usual terror on the O-boards with 9 (among 13 overall) but struggled to convert these opportunities, going only 3-13 on his way to 9 points. Jeenathan Williams was rather more efficient with 19 (on 15 attempts in 30 minutes) and 10 caroms. Laquill Hardnett contributed again with 9, making all three attempts, including one from distance, also contributing 4 boards, a block an assist and a steal and no turnovers in 27 min. The rotation was noticeably tighter than recent games against the higher level competition; the bench bunch only combined for 33 minutes. As a team, 3pt and FT shooting continue to hamper the team. Being outscored 30-6 from behind the arc is difficult to overcome.
The Bulls are scheduled to return to action on Thursday in Dekalb, IL against the NIU Huskies.