A night that will live in infamy (at least for a couple of days)
Three games, three gut-wrenching losses. The UB men’s basketball team laid its fourth egg in five games with an 85-70 home loss to Western Michigan. Canisius, fresh off a heady win over arch-rival Niagara, went on the road and got pimp-slapped by Iona, 72-53. The Sabres jumped out to a 3-1 lead over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins before skidding to a 5-4 road loss.
I was at the UB game – as was Ben T., who live-blogged this one from press row – so I’ll stick to that particular ugliness.
Bob DiCesare opens his game write-up in The Buffalo News with an apt series of questions: “What even happened to the University at Buffalo basketball team that dismantled Miami (Ohio)? What became of the defensively tenacious squad that stymied Akron Jan. 17 in avenging last year’s Mid-American Conference title game loss? Has anybody seen those Bulls?”
Good question. UB (11-8 overall, 4-4) has two distinct problems right now: they can’t score, and they can’t defend. Not a great formula!
The offensive numbers don’t necessarily back me up – Rodney Pierce scored 29 points (including 22 in the second half) and the Bulls shot over 43% for the game, which isn’t awful, but those stats belie the bigger issue. Buffalo looks tentative on offense – there are times when no one is willing to be the shooter (except Sean Smiley, who was 2-7 from the floor last night and played 16 ineffective minutes). The ball swings from Jon Boyer through the high post, back to Boyer, out to the wings, back to the high post…then someone settles for a 14-footer. Or clangs a three. Or, as we saw last night for the first time in a few games, throws the ball away.
Pierce took over after the intermission, but it was too little, too late – the Bulls never came closer than a 10-point deficit in that disheartening frame. Rodney may have scored almost 30 points, but he shot 10-26 and fattened up the ol’ box score when the game was out of reach in the final 20 minutes.
(A note: I called for Pierce to be a takeover player, so I would be a hypocrite to fault him for leading the offense when the other options weren’t working. What I can fault Pierce for, however, is his inability to finish. On multiple occasions last night, Rodney beat his man and then left the ball on the rim and/or failed to draw contact. If he’s the star, he needs to improve his efficiency or get to the line more. UB needs the points. )
The big men were non-factors: Max Boudreau had nine points and a perfect shooting night (4-4 from the floor, 1-1 from the line), but he never really established himself inside. Titus Robinson and Mitchell Watt combined for four points and were outscored by Jawaan Alston, who added five. Kambi Laleye was invisible. Dave Barnett killed a couple potential rallies with bad shot selection. Buffalo was unwilling to challenge Donald Lawson, Martelle McLemore, and Flenard Whitfield in the paint, and paid for it.
Defensively, the Bulls allowed the Broncos (12-9, 4-4) to shoot 11-22 from three-point range – McLemore and the terrifically-named David Kool were a combined 8-15 – and, as we saw against Ball State, UB was unable to keep up with the precise switches and changes needed to stymie a motion-style offense. Kool (23 points) is an impressive player, and McLemore (24 points, 9 rebounds) looked fantastic, and they were everywhere on the court. Again and again, Western Michigan would run Buffalo defenders through a wringer of screens, pics, and blocks, and again and again, Kool, McLemore, and the big men would find themselves wide-open or facing one-on-one coverage in prime shooting spots. Sure, the Broncs had a nice night from the floor, shooting over 58 percent (unbelievable), but it helps when you’re wide-the fuck-open.
Right now, UB just looks…tired. The interior defense is weak. The team lacks that hop in their step that used to keep them in games. Their shots seem to die on the iron. No one (except Pierce) is going to the basket. There’s no fight. The guys who you’d want to see improving – Robinson, Watt, Alston, Laleye – don’t seem to be getting any better and, one could argue, actually seem to be regressing. Considering that the Bulls are deep into one of the most important stretches of their season, these signs are troubling.
The only silver lining of the night was the fact the Eastern Michigan (11-10, 3-5) beat Akron (15-7, 5-3), preventing the Zips from joining Kent State atop the MAC East. Buffalo is not out of the race – they’re two games back, and they still play the three teams in front of them (including what could be a very important game against Miami in the final contest of the regular season). Hope is not lost…but frankly, it’s not looking really good right now.