The Akron Zips and Buffalo Bulls are two of the top four teams in the MAC, and they will meet at Rhodes Arena in Akron on Saturday at 7:00pm on ESPN3. Matt Gritzmacher, who writes here, but more-so for Bull Run, answered some of my questions to preview the game on Saturday night.
Matt Hammond: Well, Matt, I don't know about you, but I'm pumped for this game on Saturday between Akron and Buffalo at Rhodes Arena. In fact, in the past few years, I think that a little rivalry has been created between these two teams. I don't consider it a huge rivalry, but its definitely a game that will put people in the seats. I'm sure Buffalo students will make the trip, as well. Do you think that the fans and players at Buffalo consider Akron to be a men's basketball rival? Why, or why not?
Matt Gritzmacher: Sure, it might not be a huge rivalry, but for our outpost on the frontiers of the MAC without an obvious partner, it's the second-biggest we've got in basketball. And the best part of it is, we've won our fair share in the last few years.
Over the last ten years or so, UB's rivalries have cycled a bit. It's always Ohio, and then whoever else in the MAC East has our number. Lately, it's been Akron. True Blue and the AK-Rowdies have had some good battles, and you're absolutely right that students are coming - on a school-sponsored bus, no less.
I can't speak for the players; the Hurley era still feels strangely new in part because just 16 months after Witherspoon left only 3 players that ever played for him remained on the team. But Buffalo fans, if not drawing on an especially acrimonious history with the Zips, know how big this game is, know Akron's place over the last 10 or 15 years in the MAC, and definitely mark their calendars for this one every season.
MH: Last week in an 80-55 beat-down of Kent State, senior forward Xavier Ford lit up the Flashes for 25 points on 9-14 shooting. However, on Wednesday at Ball State, he only scored five points on 1-5 shooting. Luckily, Shannon Evans picked up the slack with 25 points of his own, and it was just a four-point victory against a significantly inferior opponent. I know this may be a weird question, but do you think that Ford may be one of the most important players on this Buffalo team?
MG: It's a good question, not too weird. I would caution trying to draw any tactical conclusions other from either of UB's two most recent games. Kent State was a perfect storm of UB marketing coming through with a ESPNU game and students finally back on campus, and no one in the country was beating Buffalo on that floor that night. I don't really want to talk about last night's lobotomy any more than I have to, but Ball State was barely basketball with close to 60 fouls called in 40 minutes of gameplay. I'm not saying it was unfair, because it wasn't, it just wasn't basketball.
It's tough to identify a most important player other than to say "our third-leading scorer." I know it's perilously close to the simple "you score more, you win more," but in three MAC losses, UB's third-leading scorer hasn't had over 12 points, and that's true of only one of the MAC wins. This team is successful when someone other than Moss and Evans is getting some.
That said, Ford brings a dynamic to this team that hasn't existed in 10 years: the balls-to-the-wall energy guy who can play 25-30 minutes without fouling out. He couldn't get into a rhythm in Muncie thanks to two fouls, but hit a big shot late to keep UB up. As a whole, UB is an emotional team that thrives on bigger stages, and Ford has been the most consistent in bringing the oomph each and every night.
MH: Justin Moss, in my opinion, is the best player in the MAC. However, I have seen him play some ugly defense in some of the games that I have watched. He could be matched up with Akron's 6-foot-11 center Pat Forsythe, who is a pretty good offensive player at 10.8 points per game, while playing in a very balanced offensive system. Will Moss have a difficult time guarding Forsythe, being four inches shorter?
MG: Moss' interior defense is a concern. Ndour brutalized him in Ohio in a game I mercifully was unable to watch. Jimmy Hall really had success early in that Kent game before it all went to hell for the Flashes. I find Moss positionally sound and generally possesses great awareness defensively, but not great when matched up one-on-one on a strong post move. Perhaps that's experience. So it depends on how good Forsythe is on the dribble, but if he really finds success, Hurley will quickly find a way to get Buffalo's two best post defenders - Ford and Johnson - in without sacrificing Moss on the offensive end.
I also believe that if it's a really apparent mismatch, you'll see UB turn up the pressure on the perimeter from Evans, Bearden, and Wigginton to ensure Forsythe simply gets the ball less. That's what they did four minutes in against Kent, and early and often against Ball State.
MH: I looked at some of Buffalo's box scores and noticed that Bobby Hurley uses an eight-man rotation. On the other side, Keith Dambrot uses an eleven-man rotation. That won't give Akron a huge advantage, but I think that it will be a factor. Does it bother you at all that Akron has eleven players that are capable of playing against an eight-man rotation like Buffalo has?
MG: I'm not sure why you're ceding so easily that it could be a huge factor. I'm comfortable with the rotation from the Buffalo end, because they've been built in their coach's image. It's a very fit group of eight that can go at it for the full 40. In the Kent game, they gave up a lazy possession up 23, and Hurley called a timeout and lit into them. It was great.
We've had a good chunk of debate on this at Bull Run, but realistically there is no ninth man anyway after some off-court issues have pulled two expected players away. When going against a successful, experienced team like Akron, it does bother me. It's Romelu Lukaku waiting for 80+ minutes only to run over whichever poor, tired American was back there in extra time and push Belgium to the quarters. The consolation from our end is that these guys have had a lot of minutes to build some real chemistry together.
MH: Finally, I'd like to ask you for a prediction.
MG: Eh... Akron doesn't play all that fast, which makes me sad. Buffalo is one of the 20 fastest teams in the country when looking at possessions/game.
I'm not as confident in this one as I'd like to be. UB hasn't had a strong road win yet in conference play, though they showed late resolve vs Ball State that we didn't see against Ohio, CMU, and WMU.
Let's say UB 76-70, but Akron holds a lead in the second and it comes down to foul shots late.
I'd like to thank Matt for answering the questions that I had about the game on Saturday. I urge you to go over to Bull Run and check it out. They're great at what they do.