Friday features an enticing matchup between the Buffalo Bulls and Ohio Bobcats, two teams that both are fighting for a chance to secure the MAC East crown and improve its chances for a bye in the MAC tourney (this conference is whacky, we have no idea what could happen).
We chatted up Matt Gritzmacher of Bull Run to get some answers about Buffalo.
HB: For all intents and purposes Nate Oats is a MAC coach of the year candidate if Buffalo even goes .500 the rest of the way. What has he done with this team that has enabled it to be successful after losing very good players?
Matt: It's simple, he hit on his immediate-impact guys. It's how Hurley improved the team in his first year, weathered the graduation of Javon McCrea, and it's working again. Oats only has at his disposal three guys who saw the floor for UB last year, but JUCO incomers Willie Conner and Blake Hamilton have for stretches each looked like Buffalo's best player, and late addition to the recruiting class, CJ Massinburg is having a heck of a freshman season without too much pressure on his shoulders. It doesn't look like there'll be any transfer names next year, but thrice in three years UB's gotten instant contributions from new faces.
HB: What was Buffalo doing well in its recent win streak?
Matt: Scoring balance. For much of the season the game went as Lamonte Bearden went - if the ball went into the lane and never came back out, we ended up with a one man show even if he was effective against opponents' help defense. There's been more movement and chemistry lately, and you see Conner and Hamilton working off-ball more, while Nick Perkins grows more comfortable as a freshman.
HB: Obviously with all that momentum going into the Toledo game, the loss of Bearden hurt. How much did it affect them in that one?
Matt: Tough to say because a lot went funky that hadn't been for a while. The offense stalled out late, failing to play 40 full minutes, and the fouls were disproportionate - it'd been two years since UB had less than ten free throws in a home game. If the Oats/Hurley ball-to-the-rim strategy isn't drawing fouls, regardless of whether shots are falling, Buffalo loses a huge part of their offense.
That said, if Lamonte plays, even for just the last five minutes, it's a win. Hamilton, Massinburg, and Skeete have proved capable of running the point, so it's not like it should have changed UB's whole offensive character.
HB: I (Kaleb) and others I think expected more this year from Wigginton and Skeete. How would you rate their contributions in comparison to the others who have unexpectedly stepped up?
Matt: Yep. Wigginton is an effort guy who frankly hasn't brought it consistently this year. Early in the season there was reason for surprise when his minutes dropped, but now there shouldn't be. Skeete is a little more puzzling. He's never been great at creating his own shot, but he's not being asked to. It's kind of a mix of three things: he has the best defensive chemistry with Wigginton, he probably benefited the most from the two-PG system last year, and whether they're shooting threes or driving a bit, Conner and Hamilton have been more dangerous off the wings.
HB: What do the Bulls need to do to get back on track and defeat Ohio? Have an x-factor?
Matt: It's all about the balanced scoring. If they can get four players into double digits, that's a huge factor. If someone tries to do it all himself, it will get predictable. Blake Hamilton is probably the X-factor, but he's also playing plenty well lately (ahead of Mitchell Watt's POTY rates from a few years back). I wouldn't be surprised if he runs the point for long stretches and puts up a ton of secondary stats.