Halfway through the MAC season, nobody expeted Byron Mulkey (left) and Torian Oglesby to help Buffalo and Bowling Green into first place.
At this very moment, SB Nation's basketball bracketology has Buffalo going to the NCAA tournament. ESPN disagrees: they pick Bowling Green. Before the basketball season, the MAC media poll chose Buffalo sixth in the MAC East, and BG fifth. These were logically sound choices, especially since this is the Bluebulls' "de facto piss-poor season" and the Falcons team "doesn't have much going for it." We clearly don't know a damn thing.
They're both 6-2 in the conference, and it's very possible that either team will solidify a long-awaited NCAA Tournament berth. Call it a down year in the MAC, chalk it up to some underachievement or down years in the East, or label it as parity. But it can be difficult to excrete the conventional wisdom that BG and UB are the two worst teams, then digest the fact that they're two of the best.
The Falcons' rise to the top is more puzzling of the two, because while UB's been doing it all year, the Falcons' winning streak came out of nowhere. They began the season with a 2-9 start, with one of those wins coming against an Division II team, and the other one against a team coached by Isiah Thomas. They've flipped the script on the season and are on a 9-2 run, including wins at nonconference Saint Louis and the aforementioned Buffalo. But they didn't win nine of 11 by shooting the lights out, or gaudy rebounding numbers, or even with stellar defense. They do, however, create turnovers. They're good for almost nine steals a game and have the league's top assist/turnover ratio in conference play (1.14) as well as a +1.38 turnover margin.
Top scorer, junior guard Scott Thomas, has collected his points quietly, all while leading the conference with 19 steals in eight games. I say it's quiet because A`uston Calhoun's emergence has been rather deafening. Barely used as a freshman last year, Calhoun's game has been upped since New Year's Day by averaging 14.4 points per game and is starting to draw constant double teams. He and fellow forward Torian Oglesby have also made the team fun as hell to watch with their slam dunks. In eight conference games, Oglesby and The Big Apostrophe have combined for 18 dunks, which is not an officially-kept stat but oughta be, and I'd imagine they lead the conference in that category. Some of those have been alley-oops, and bringing it all together is the diminutive but fierce Jordon Crawford. You might be taller than this 5'6" point guard, but — how the announcers put it so often for little guys? — he plays like he's 6'8".
And while Buffalo fell to BG at home, don't think they're any worse. (As annotated by their 14-6 record.) They've been this steady all year. A couple of opening MAC losses to Bowling Green and Miami marred their surprising nonconference swing, but since then it's been gravy: six straight wins, including Akron, OHIO and a 25-point pasting of Kent State. Thanks to a couple blowouts, the Bulls are winning by an average of nine points. While Byron Mulkey might not be the conference player of the year, UB wouldn't be where they are without their point guard, who does a bit of everything: he shoots, he defends, he passes the ball around, and he can steal it away. He leaves most of the shooting up to Zach Filzen, who you can rely on for about three or four 3-pointers a night. Their forward play has also been unmatched; Javon McCrea is one of the best on the offensive glass, and Mitchell Watt leads the MAC in swats: 22 blocks in eight games.
Most astounding about Buffalo's year is the timing of it. Last year they lost six seniors, and Reggie Witherspoon, in his 12th year (second only to Pirate Coles), has been given all the patience in the world. After a dark span of 31 wins in five years, Buffalo has gone 68-85 in MAC games since the 2003-04 season. Not really a world-beating record, but enough to keep the job. They've never reached that wondrous NCAA Tournament, but they did taste the postseason with appearances in the NIT and CBI.
Oh, and look who plays each other in the final game of the regular season.
All this is, of course, where we stand at this moment. Kent State would likely be tied for first with them, but remain at 5-2 because their bout with Western was snowed out (and rescheduled for February 21). Between those three, you'd have to go with Kent State, mostly because of their expected finish and how badly they've beaten the opposition. In their five MAC wins, they've done so by an average of 14.2 points. There is, of course, the previously alluded-to 79-54 humiliation at Buffalo, which is the same building UB took BYU to the wire, and almost knocked off UConn a couple years ago, but remember that the rematch will be in Kent, and the tournament is in Cleveland, which is essentially another home game for them.
The favorite du jour remains the Golden Flashes (he writes as he crosses off OHIO and Ball State in dry erase marker) but that these other two are healthily in the conversation — even while competing in the MAC's stronger division — should hopefully convince those that predictions without a time machine are all but fun feats of futility.