CLEVELAND - You might call it destiny, that the University of Toledo meets Buffalo here today in a shootout at high noon in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
Six months ago, a lot of the so-called experts predicted these two would be here, walking off 20 paces, and staring each other down. The Rockets and the Bulls were the pre-season favorites in their respective divisions, and they were booked to settle it all on the same floor where Toledo slugged out a 97-85 win over Buffalo in last year's tournament.
The only thing different is that the two teams did not follow that predicted path. The Rockets needed to win the final game of the season to take a share of the West title, while Buffalo fell short in the East. Their expected meeting in the MAC Tournament championship will not materialize, since they'll meet in the quarterfinal round.
UT coach Stan Joplin is not looking back, or too far ahead. He said the Rockets, winners of nine of their last 12 games, are best when they keep the focus short-term.
"I think you can't worry about down the road, and what we might do in the next round," Joplin said. "I think you have to worry about the game you are playing at that particular time. We can't worry about anything in the past or what might happen tomorrow, because if we worry about down the road, we might never get there."
Buffalo, a winner of a school-record 20 games, presents its own particular set of challenges since it boasts three of the MAC's biggest big men in 6-10 senior Mark Bortz, 6-10 Yassin Idbihi, and 6-9, 290-pounder Brian Andre. Joplin said the trio has an equally big role in triggering the UB offense.
"Their big guys are big and strong and they take up a lot of space," Joplin said. "They set pretty good screens, so the problem we have is that we have to refuse to be screened. Sometimes we run into screens and just stop.
"We have to continue to stay after the ball and be aggressive after the basketball. We don't want to let them do what they want to do. If they continue to run their offense, sooner or later, something is going to happen. We're going to have to play defense for the whole shot clock. We have to be patient on defense and stick with our principles."
Joplin said the Rockets will have to be especially aggressive on the boards, an area where UT has had difficulty holding its own.
"When you get late into he season, especially in tournament time, you have to play good half-court offense and defense," Joplin said. "I think our defense has been pretty decent, but we haven't been rebounding. We have to put an emphasis on that as far as matching up with Buffalo, and we have to take care of the basketball."
UT has five players averaging more than 9.0 points per game, and Joplin said the depth and balance of his team allow him a lot of flexibility as far as which player to use in certain situations.
"We've played enough guys for enough minutes this season that we have a lot of options," Joplin said. "If somebody isn't playing particularly hard or isn't as focused as they should be, I'm confident in the guys we have on the bench, and I won't hesitate to make some changes."
In their only meeting this season, the Rockets lost to Buffalo for the first time ever when they allowed a 15-point second half lead to melt away, and suffered a 56-54 defeat. Buffalo is led by senior point guard Turner Battle (15.4 points), who yesterday was named the MAC player of the year.
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