When it comes to UB's in-state little brothers, I usually give them the Syracuse treatment: refuse to acknowledge they exist and dismiss them as unworthy. That's what I'd like to do with Binghamton Tennis, even now that they begin their second season in the MAC, but I can't.
UB hosts the Bearcats at 1:00 PM today at the Miller Tennis Center.
As much as I hate to legitimize Binghamton, I also want to repeatedly grind them to dust. I don't know if those within the program think of this as a rivalry, but I do, and I want it to be very clearly one-sided. I want 7-0 every time. I honestly don't know if I can say that about any other MAC opponent in any sport.
So far, we haven't quite gotten that. Binghamton's first year in the conference saw them grab a 5-2 win over UB in the regular season and open up what was really a commanding lead, even if the team score didn't show it, in the MAC Final before the Bulls staged a stunning comeback to win the championship.
Since then, Binghamton graduated two seniors while retaining experienced, top-of-the-lineup rising seniors. Buffalo graduated two seniors while retaining experienced, top-of-the-lineup rising seniors. The Bearcats have a freshman or two slotting into the middle-bottom of their lineup and an important depth junior moving up a spot or two from last year. The Bulls have a freshman slotting into the middle of the lineup and an important depth senior moving up two spots, generally, from last year.
I hate to say it, but if this isn't a rivalry on geography, it will be soon on familiarity and simply because the teams are so similar.
We have gotten a bit of a comparison between the two teams since the MAC Final, in last fall's conference invitational hosted by Western Michigan and at Binghamton's own fall invite.
In Binghamton, Akhil Mehta, who's mostly seen time at #5 singles this spring for the Bulls, went up in successive matches against the Bearcats' top two in Sid Hazarika and Eliott Hureau, winning the first in straight sets and falling in straight sets in the flight championship. Noah Hajdu-Andersson also lost to Hureau, but got a win over Ludovico Cestarollo, who's more likely to be in Hajdu-Andersson's neighborhood in the lineup.
In Kalamazoo, Amar Hromic, in a likely preview of #1s, got a 6-3, 6-4 win over Hazarika; Hajdu-Andersson fell to another possible opponent today in Frank Kote; Sergio Arevalillo got a win over freshman Valentin Bouchet; Mehta easily handled Inigo Saez, and Tony Miler got a tight win over Thomas Caputo, who was at the bottom of the pecking order in the fall, but has spent the spring season between #2 and #4 singles.
The eye test of recent results looks good for Buffalo: beyond mostly wins, a number of them are from guys lower in UB's lineup than their opponents are in Binghamton's.
An attempt to compare team results looks promising for the Bulls, as well: Considering common opponents, UB nearly upset nationally-ranked Cornell, while the Bearcats won just two sets in a 7-0 loss. Both teams fared better against Brown, with Buffalo of course getting the 4-3 win and Binghamton... losing 6-1. Each group beat Bryant 5-2.
Setting Binghamton themselves aside, today's match is absolutely key schedule-wise for the Bulls. The MAC has expanded the schedule beyond a true round-robin this season, and UB faces two opponents twice. Of course those two are the other two programs picked in the preseason top three in Binghamton and Western Michigan.
UB does get to play all four of those matches at home, but even with the expanded schedule cannot afford a slow start to conference play as they did last year. By all accounts Coach Nickell has scheduled deliberately to avoid this: UB's tougher opponents came earlier in the season than in 2015, and the team has had just two matches in the last five weeks and none in the last three.
Projected Lineups, based on the last month or so:
1. Hureau/Cestarollo (BING) vs Alvarez/Hromic (UB)
2. Caputo/Kote (BING) vs Miller/Mehta (UB)
3. Bouchet/Hazarika vs Arevalillo/Nittolo (UB)
1. Hureau (BING) vs Hromic (UB)
2. Hazarika (BING) vs Alvarez (UB)
3. Caputo (BING) vs Arevalillo (UB)
4. Cestarollo (BING) vs Nittolo (UB)
5. Bouchet (BING) vs Hajdu-Andersson (UB)
6. Saez (BING) vs Mehta (UB)
For UB, the most uncertainty in these projections is in the #2 doubles pairing and #5 and #6 singles. Miller, Mehta, and Hajdu-Andersson are a bit interchangeable it seems (though Miller's a good bet for half the doubles pairing, with one of the others), and Artur Culicovschi could get a look at #6.
Binghamton seems to have settled into the doubles pairings as listed, but the bottom half of the singles lineup could look a lot different, as the Bearcats can and have rolled out entirely fresh legs in those spots who didn't compete in the doubles sets. Frenk Kote and Josh Druger could each make an appearance anywhere from #4 to #6.
It's noteworthy, to me at least, that Hureau has passed Hazarika in the last few weeks at the top. Given Hromic's head to head win over the Binghamton senior earlier this fall, I'd feel more comfortable if he drew him. Pablo Alvarez fell to Hazarika in a very tight three sets last spring, and didn't face him in the Final.
No matter the combination from #3 and down, I think UB should have the advantage in certainly Arevalillo's match, and at least one other. The key matches will be at #3 doubles, where Hazarika has quietly racked up a 7-4 record, and at #1 and #2 singles. In all three places, I think UB is superior, but not so much so that they can coast through errors and win on talent alone. If the Bulls can get two points from those three spots, I think they're in good shape to win the match and start MAC play with a win.
The first 75 students in attendance today will receive a rally towel. I hope it's enough to pull some away from March Madness, because I like wins over Binghamton more than I like most things.