Game 087: (7) Buffalo 85, (2) Toledo 72Mid-American Quarterfinals
Thursday, March 10, 2005
Gund Arena - Cleveland, OH
October is for pumpkin pie, baseball playoffs, falling leaves. It also brings the first quivers of anticipation for the college basketball fan, as the first signs of winter approach. There, in the convenience stores and train station newsstands, nestled in amongst the copies of Sports Illustrated
, are the preseason annuals.
After eight months of warm temperatures to soften one's brain, it's easy to accept them as gospel. Every outlook, each prediction, seems based on such hard evidence and impenetrable logic - everything is just so authoritative
. In March, however, the Street & Smith
and Athlon Sports
magazines sit yellowed and faded in bathrooms across Hoops Nation, usually twice as funny as the 100 Best Toilet Jokes
books that sit alongside.
Preseason picks are usually based on two things: a quick analysis of each roster (Does a team have enough shooting? Size? Bench depth?), and the previous season's result. They do their best to model the upcoming season, but they can't figure for injuries, infighting, overconfidence and growth - all the things that make January and February worth watching.
So according to these magazines, 2004-05 was scheduled to be the Buffalo Bulls' breakthrough year. After a half-decade serving as the Mid-American Conference's punching bag, they enjoyed a notice-serving 2003-04 that saw them hurtle from the murky MAC depths to their first-ever trip to the quarterfinals. With no graduations and a lot of shoulder-chips, they were going to rip through the East with a well-balanced attack.
Toledo? Well, they were just plain stacked. Scoring, rebounding, guard play, bench play - they were poised to dominate the Western division. If you wanted to predict the 2005 MAC championship game, you could do worse than Buffalo and Toledo, a rematch of the quarterfinal that ended the Bulls' season.
But something happened on the way to Cleveland. The Bulls did compile their first-ever 20-win season (with eight losses), but were maddeningly inconsistent. They had their 7-2 pre-league mark, their big victories over eventual Dance teams Fairleigh Dickinson
. They also featured a defense that would become frighteningly porous at inopportune times, allowing just two fewer points per game (71) than 6-22 division-mates Marshall
. After keeping opponents in the Fifties during a five-game win streak in late February, they went out and allowed a young Ohio
team to rip them for 90 once the calendar turned to March.
As for their presumptive title-game opponents, the Toledo players were a million different people from one day to the next, during that bittersweet symphony of a regular season. They didn't really surface until a three-game spurt at the close of February. After Western Michigan
and Bowling Green
duked it out at the top of the MAC West for most of the winter, the Rockets won the guaranteed two-seed as the West champ on a series of tiebreakers, after putting together a less-than-dominating 11-8 league record.
And so the Bulls and Rockets squared off in a far different setting than expected, with many fewer spotlights: another quarterfinal. Because of the two teams' wildly varying recent histories, there were no experts or tea leaf-readers who could have possibly predicted the outcome of this game with any assurance, there were just too many potential scenarios.
It turned out that the correct crack to this game's combination lock was Buffalo Good, and Toledo Bad. Five busloads of UB students converted one corner of Gund Arena into a frothy blue and white group tizzy; the Bulls went up 7-0, never trailed, and pushed aside every vain attempt at a Rocket run. Toledo had one final surge in them down the stretch, closing to 73-68, but there was an answer for that too, a 12-4 one. The white-clad Rocket players slumped their shoulders, accepted defeat. At least they were finally unburdened, free of their preseason expectations.
When the buzzer sounded, UB had avenged the previous campaign's season-ending loss and achieved a conference semifinal berth for the first time in their history. They did all this with perhaps the least surprising low-seed upset in recent conference tournament history; a Johnny-come-lately would be hard-pressed to find the correct two-seed in this picture.
In March, it doesn't matter how many style points you collect on your way to victory, just as long as you get there. The magazine pundits who picked Buffalo as MAC champion back in October may well have their selection justified, and any subtleties and nuances will be washed away in a sea of praise if they prevail. When October comes around again and a fresh batch of preseason publications are printed, all the complexities and nuances of a winning journey are wiped away with a simple phrase.
"We told you so."Photo Gallery (Games 087/088/089/090)
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