It's that time of year, MAC fans! The New Year is upon us and the frigid Midwest winter is back, which means conference play is here. MAC play opens on Tuesday night as MAC East rivals square off in New York as the Akron Zips take on the Buffalo Bulls. I asked Matt Gritzmacher of Bull Run a few questions about the league opener for both teams.
Tip is at 7:00 EST and it can be streamed on ESPN3.
And away we go:
Hustle Belt: I know for a fact that nobody has beaten Akron more in the past five years than Buffalo. In fact, Akron hasn't won on the road in this series since 2009. What is it about Akron that has gotten the best basketball out of UB for so many years now?
Matt Gritzmacher: Unlike a lot of MAC teams (across all sports, really) Akron is a known entity thanks to the tenure and stability they have in Keith Dambrot. Buffalo fans used to ask the same questions when Bowling Green constantly foiled Reggie Witherspoon's system. However good Ohio or Kent are year-to-year, everyone knows that to be really good in the MAC East you have to take on the Zips, who are largely good year to year with a consistent identity. Before Forsythe and Robotham there was Diggs, Tree, Marshall, and McClanahan, and before them there was Abreu, McNees, and the McKnight brothers. The AK-Rowdies as rivals played a big role in True Blue's growth, and the locals who fill Alumni know Akron is a contender every year, too. People get up for the Zips.
HB: Buffalo's MAC Championship team last year played hard-nosed basketball and came right after you with skill and physicality. How does this Bulls team compare?
MG: To say the least, it's nowhere close and a team that's still finding chemistry. A 10-8 MAC season is maybe on the cusp of reasonability. At times they want to run and score in transition like last year's group, but they find more consistent success running a patient half-court offense. If the most recent win against Delaware is a sign of things to come, they're starting to look like a team with plenty of attacking movement, but it could be an outlier. The effort and physicality are there, but the skill, chemistry, and ability to capitalize on mistakes is still coming along.
HB: Akron has the three often and shot it well on just about everybody from Villanova to Lipscomb. How does that match up to Buffalo's strengths on defense?
MG: That's a tough one. I wouldn't say UB has been particularly strong against the three, though they are holding opponents to 33%, a good bit below Akron's rate. UB still plays pretty tight on the perimeter and generates a lot of turnovers without committing many fouls, but my gut feeling is that both Robotham and Jackson, let alone both on the floor at the same time, are better than all but one of the point guards the Buffalo defense has beaten this year.
HB: For the third year in a row, the Zips struggle to stop opposing guards from driving to the basket. Even with Pat Forsythe down low, it doesn't stop them from doing so. What Buffalo players are the most dangerous when it comes to attacking the basket?
MG: Lamonte Bearden, of course, and freshman guard CJ "Buckets" Massinburg, who has been a very pleasant surprise this year. Both, however - and especially Bearden - are prone to throw up circus shots even with three or four defenders collapsing the lane instead of kicking it out for open looks. If Blake Hamilton is healthy (suffered a concussion Christmas weekend and missed Delaware), he brings good size to his drives, and Willie Conner showed a new-found aggressiveness to the rim against the Blue Hens.
HB: And, as always, what's your prediction?
MG: Coming into this season I wouldn't have been too confident in this one. Akron was a better team than they finished last year thanks not only to the Robotham injury, but smaller injuries in the MAC Tournament, while UB has so much gelling to do. Throw an 11-2 start for the Zips on top of , and it's even more lopsided. UB may have turned a corner against Delaware, but will need to do more to convince me that's normal.
A big thanks to Matt for answering my questions on the defending champion. I answered a few of his questions about Akron as well. Check out Bull Run for the best Buffalo coverage you can find.