The expectation from the beginning of the Bobby Hurley era was for the University at Buffalo to contend for the Mid-American Conference championship. Three consecutive victories have reenergized a push toward that objective.
Were they to beat Ohio University this afternoon and Akron lose to Northern Illinois, the Bulls (14-7, 8-3) would be in sole possession of first place in the MAC’s East Division and within striking distance of the league regular season title.
“We’ve progressed nicely as a team all year and we’ve cleaned up areas that were hurting us earlier in the season,” Hurley said. “It’s nice to have a team you feel like is still getting better, hasn’t reached its ceiling yet, and I really feel that way with this group. It’s great to be playing meaningful games now.”
Each contest is significant for UB with seven games remaining, including this afternoon’s matchup against the Bobcats (17-7, 7-4). The Bulls are one of five teams in contention for the league’s regular season title and the automatic berth into the National Invitation Tournament.
Toledo (9-2), which plays at Eastern Michigan today, is the leader while UB, Akron and Western Michigan are all tied at 8-3 and Ohio is 7-4. The top four seeds automatically advance to the quarterfinals of next month’s MAC Tournament and the top two to the semifinals.
This time of year is generally the most difficult stretch for UB. After Ohio comes Akron next Wednesday at Alumni, then back-to-back road games at Kent and Ohio. The Bulls end the regular season with a home game against Miami (Ohio), a road game at Akron and then Bowling Green at home on Senior Night.
“We’re going to have to win and control our own destiny,” Hurley said. “It’s fun, it’s great and I know the guys will be excited to play.”
Javon McCrea did his part to help secure Buffalo’s latest triumph, 75-62, over Miami on Wednesday on the road.
The senior from Newark scored 25 points on 12-for-14 shooting with a game-high 11 rebounds.
Over the last four games, McCrea is averaging 14 rebounds, including a stunning 20-rebound performance at Central Michigan.
“His rebounding has been ridiculous lately,” Hurley said. “The way he’s pursuing the basketball, he’s scoring at will in the paint and stepping away and making shots and doing all the things we need him to do. Steals, blocked shots, every area.”
The Bulls collectively have been more attentive to rebounding of late, with a combined plus-28 margin in the last two games. The last time UB was outrebounded was in a loss at Bowling Green on Feb. 2.
But first there’s Ohio. Now UB can validate that it belongs in the conversation with a win over an opponent with a winning record in conference play. The combined MAC record of Ball State, Central Michigan and Miami (Ohio), the Bulls’ last three opponents, is 7-26.
UB fans will be happy to know that D.J. Cooper, who tormented the Bulls at every turn for four seasons, is no longer around. It seems like Nick Kellogg has been around since bell bottoms but he’s finally a senior and leads the Bobcats in scoring (15.3 ppg.). Maurice Ndour, a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer, will be a handful (15.2 ppg., 7.7 rpg., 1.8 bpg.).
“He’s going to be a great matchup for Javon,” Hurley said. “He’s one of the better players in the league.”
UB-Ohio is part of a doubleheader at Alumni Arena that also features the UB women (13-9, 6-5) against Northern Illinois (8-13, 4-7) at noon.
Elsewhere in Big 4 women’s basketball, St. Bonaventure (19-7, 8-3 Atlantic 10) hosts Duquesne (16-8, 8-3) at 1 p.m. at the Reilly Center in a pivotal conference matchup for both teams.
The Bonnies, who have won eight of 10, and the Dukes are tied for second place, 1½ games behind Dayton (9-1). Duquesne has dropped its last two. Elsewhere, Canisius (9-15, 5-10 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) hosts Siena (7-17, 2-13) at 2 p.m. at the Koessler Center, while Niagara (8-16, 69 MAAC) hosts Manhattan (7-17, 6-9) at 4 p.m. at the Gallagher Center.
The St. Bonaventure men’s team (14-10, 4-6 Atlantic 10) is on the road at George Mason (9-15, 2-8) at 6 p.m.