Remember the 2005-2006 school year for Akron athletics? The football team won the conference. The soccer team made it to the elite eight. The basketball team won its first postseason game against Temple in the NIT.
This was a good year. And it put the Zippers on the national radar for a little while as an upstart program.
The Buffalo Bulls are in that place right now. Coming off a surprise MAC championship over an undefeated No. 12 Ball State, the UB athletic program has never been more prominent. Now the basketball team is threatening to shake up the conference.
With an 8-5 record, Reggie Witherspoon's Bulls will play the Zips at Rhodes Arena Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Here are five things you should know about them...
1) The most successful programs in the MAC have a strong team identity that can make a better team feel uncomfortable. For example, as we saw over the weekend, Miami slows the tempo. Akron and Kent State have beaten more talented teams by focusing on team defense. Over the past few years, Witherspoon has crafted an identity for his team, too: physicality. The Bulls are bumpers, slappers and bruisers. The Bulls won't outrun you or outshoot you (probably), but they will outhustle you and make a lot of contact on defense. Such a style throws opponents out of their rhythm. It can be similar to blowing an airhorn in your backswing. Most MAC teams eventually overcome it because of familiarity, but the Bulls are notorious for giving teams more of a game than they expected. For nonconference foes that are unaccustomed to this style, it is a greater challenge. This season, Buffalo has beaten Temple, Colorado and Colorado State. The Bulls came within four points of upsetting No. 2 UConn in a game the teams played at Buffalo (for some reason).
2) In both meetings last season,
Cedrick Middleton and
Nick Dials scored a lot. Those were the Zips' toughest players mentally, and it's no coincidence that they were able to succeed despite the physicality.
Keith Dambrot has stressed this season that he does not believe his team is tough enough yet mentally. It will help that the game is at Rhodes Arena, but not that much. The Bulls have shown poise on the road, going 4-3 away from Buffalo.
3) The Bulls' strength is a very solid three-guard backcourt. At 6-foot-4, the tallest of the guards,
Greg Gamble, runs the point quite a bit. Decision-making, defense and rebounding are his best traits, but you can leave him wide open on the perimeter without worrying about his shooting.
Calvin Betts was MACReportOnline's Sixth Man of the Year in 2008. Now a starter, the 6-3 junior is Buffalo's most versatile player; he even got time at power forward last season. He leads the team with 7.2 rebounds per game. The Bulls' leading scorer is junior shooting guard
Rodney Pierce, who transferred from Rider. Pierce flourished when Witherspoon moved him to off-guard, where he could play without concentrating on facilitating the offense. He averages 16 points per game.
4) Witherspoon had the luxury of returning his top eight scorers from last season. That's not to say Buffalo is rich on experienced talent. In fact, the three guards are the only Bulls who could play on most MAC teams. Buffalo's bigs are particularly incompetent on offense. For example,
Jawaan Alston has made 1-of-14 free throw attempts this season. That makes him a walking turnover. Foul him, get the ball back with no damage done. The bigs have some athleticism and defensive ability, but Akron's game is not post scoring, so that will not be an advantage on Tuesday.
5) Rebounding will be the key to this game. That is the Bulls' strength and the Zips' weakness. Akron must box out Buffalo's guards. Even if they lose the rebounding battle, the Zips will win the game as long as they have an OK shooting night and do not choke on their tongues when the Bulls start their slapping and bumping. Dambrot will get a good indication if the Zips' young guards can take him deep into the MAC Tournament by watching how
Humpty Hitchens and Co. can adapt to a physical game. I think the Zips will win by nine.