It’s been a whirlwind of a year so far for Buffalo Bulls Women’s Basketball. The Bulls had a program record start at 10-0 as they rolled through their less than strenuous out of conference schedule before falling to a quality mid-major in Harvard. It was a great start, but now the Bulls are having trouble now that MAC play has arrived. They’ve shown flashes of being the best team in the MAC but inconsistency has been the name of the game.
Surprisingly, defense has been the most inconsistent part to UB’s game. For a team that usually has bragging rights in that regard, it’s unusual to see. The biggest problem right now is definitely in the Bulls’ execution of their signature matchup zone. Going the entire non-conference slate without playing it, the Bulls brought it to the table in conference play with a mixed bag of results.
The matchup zone is not an easy defensive scheme to execute by any means. While it has the ability to shut down practically any offense, if one player fails to read a situation right, the defense will have a hole and can fall apart almost immediately.
That’s where UB’s most recent game against Northern Illinois comes into view. For background, this particular zone requires two players to trap whoever has the ball and for one player to leave their assignment in that process. Naturally, you’d think that in turn leaves a player wide open often times on the perimeter but that’s where UB’s forwards are supposed to help out and pick up the open player if they get the ball somehow and drive it into the lane.
It’s like having two walls essentially to go through on defense, where if one of UB’s guards can’t hang onto the assignment they currently have, they know the forwards behind them should be able to pick up slack.
This isn’t to say all of the blame are on UB’s forwards, but they’re definitely not holding up their end of the bargain. Just consider NIU’s Ally Lehman with about four minutes in the third quarter. Lehman was able to go coast to coast seamlessly and get past UB’s guards. Wilkins — who was the forward in the center of the interior at the time — didn’t read that Lehman would keep pushing into the lane in time to stop it.
You see it again with three minutes left in the quarter where Lehman practically does the same thing by slipping past Stephanie Reid. Summer Hemphill is slacking back in a dead area in the left interior that won’t necessarily matter in this situation.
That’s the problem with UB and these uptempo teams this season. These teams know that the Bulls have great defense on the perimeter (See: Reid and K. Ups). But, NIU also knows that if they can take it inside and it’ll be an easier path. For whatever reason, UB’s guards are assuming that the opposing team’s guards are going to slouch back around the perimeter. It’s why Ball State, Toledo, and now NIU have had field days on offense.
So there are three things the Bulls need to happen now to get this back into order. Firstly, they need the interior to step up and prevent the easy drive into the lane type of baskets we’re seeing. When Cassie Oursler was doing an amazing job in the interior at the beginning of the season, UB was virtually unstoppable because their guards could clean up in the back court. Secondly, the guards need to be less passive and try and slow down guards when they drive into the lane. It’ll help the forwards tremendously. Finally, Buffalo needs to put a vice-grip on transition play, but also get set into the zone as quickly as possible. Fast-break offense is quickly showing to be a great way to get past this zone like in the way you’d dismantle a press.
If UB can get their defense in order, just think of where they’d be right now. We’re seeing some of the best offense this team has put together all season. JoAnna Smith is shooting at the peak of her game and the Bulls are starting to get great minutes from bench assets like Wilkins and Suchan. Then, add in the fact that Stephanie Reid’s leadership is like none other (we’re really taking for granted that 12 assists in a game are becoming really common). I don’t think there’s a single team in the conference that can beat them if they get the defense in line.
The Bulls face two easy opponents this week and if all goes right, they get these problems sorted out in time for a home matchup with Ohio. If the Bulls go 3-0 in this time, I’d say they’re in prime form to win a second MAC Championship. This is the perfect time to get everything in line and go on a hot streak.