The Buffalo Bulls men's basketball team couldn't ask for a tougher challenge to open MAC play. The Bulls had to face conference favorite Akron and a Kent State team that many believed to be a close second to the Zips. During this stretch of early play in the conference schedule, UB fans started to believe that this team could win the conference.
Battling Northeast Ohio
Many expected for the Bulls to take a heavy loss when the Akron Zips entered Alumni Arena. Akron had a strong non-conference and demonstrated team chemistry to a much higher level than Buffalo. Surprisingly, the game was much closer than anyone could imagine.
Buffalo stayed right in striking distance for the entire game and at the half they were tied with Akron at 35 a piece. With 15 seconds left in the game, JUCO transfer Willie Conner drained a three pointer and made it a one point game. Buffalo had a higher shooting percentage than Akron that night and if it wasn't for a few turnovers, they probably could've won that game.
The men traveled to Kent, Ohio three days later and something even more remarkable happened. The Bulls smothered the Golden Flashes in a 76-67 win as Willie "Fear the Beard" Conner had an electric night with 22 points. There were only a few points during the game where it seemed like Kent State could win, but the game was nearly wrapped up in the end. The same team that looked like a dumpster fire against Old Dominion just gave the number one and two teams in the conference a run for their money.
Putting the MAC on Notice
Buffalo started to make the rest of the Mid-American Conference nervous in the following games. Despite two baffling losses to directional Michigan's, the Bulls steam rolled through their opponents in January and a portion of February. The entire squad started to play like the best team in the MAC and it showed not only in the assist column, but with how confident the team was getting.
Take the game between Buffalo and Central Michigan for example. The Bulls had a whopping 18 turnovers but still managed to put away the Chippewas 74-61. UB dominated the boards that night, put up 19 assists, and shot 50% from the field. Imagine how much of a blowout it would've been if the turnovers were cut in half.
The stellar performance wasn't just at Central Michigan as the Bulls also cruised to their win against the Toledo Rockets. Every time Toledo closed in on Buffalo, the Rocket deficit proliferated instantly. Northern Illinois didn't have a loss at home yet on the season until Buffalo made the trip to DeKalb. Whenever the Huskies used a 2-3 zone, the Bulls obliterated them in the 90-78 win.
There was still a case for Akron for which team was playing the best basketball, but Buffalo became the other clear choice. UB became an afterthought not that far into non-conference but they were taking MAC play by a storm. Before the Kent State game, Buffalo didn't have a single road win to their name. By this point in the conference season, they had four.
If I Never See Your Face Again, I Don't Mind
The title to this section will be the only time in my life that I quote Maroon 5, but I never wanted to see the Eastern Michigan Eagles ever again. Since the Bobby Hurley era, the Eagles' 2-3 zone has been the kryptonite to Buffalo's offense. Earlier in the conference season, the Bulls were blown out after they couldn't find any solutions.
Their second meeting looked a lot like the first until the very end. Buffalo trailed the entire game and started things off with a 18-3 deficit. It was a complete role reversal of UB's matchup with Northern Illinois. The rest of the contest was spent clawing back into the game.
Dating back to a season prior, Buffalo had never won a game in which they didn't lead at the 5 minutes left mark. Because of that stat, I chocked the game up as a loss in my mind but the Bulls still had a fight left in them.
Seniors Rodell Wigginton and Jarryn Skeete didn't have as much impact this season as many wanted, but in the ending of this game, they played a crucial role. A Wigginton layup tied up the game at 64 and from there the Bulls ran away with it. The two Canadians managed to score 8 of the last 16 points for Buffalo. Another star in this one was Freshman Nick Perkins. His coverage of James Thompson would not only foreshadow how much trouble he gives an opposing big man, but the defensive effort was spectacular all round.
Nine games into conference play Buffalo held a 6-3 record, one game out of first place Akron. Buffalo made an unbelievable effort to get to this point and for the first time fans were optimistic about a MAC Championship repeat. If only a whirlwind didn't disrupt this momentum in the near future.