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Is Buffalo college hoops content with falling just short? - OPINION

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

All Buffalo basketball players should handle defeat like Canisius’ Billy Baron and UB’s Javon McCrea.

After any Canisius or UB loss this year, Baron and McCrea approached the media identically. Walking into post-game press conferences, their expressions suggested that a beloved pet had just died. They stared blankly forward and proffered one-sentence answers with minds drifting off to turning points in the loss and opportunities that weren’t seized.

They simply aren’t content with losing and refuse to accept anything other than a “W.” Their responses will always be “we beat ourselves” and not “the other team was just better tonight”—the rationale of “we could have always done more” is heartening, inspiring.

There’s a problem, though, and it doesn’t stem from stars like Baron, McCrea or really any Buffalo basketball player at all.

By over-emphasizing silver linings and sugarcoating near-misses—a fault of Buffalo’s sports media (non-Bills and Sabres, that is, which is about as pessimistic of a bunch as you can find)—we encourage a culture of feel-good mediocrity, one that stifles the hunger and redemption that stems from acknowledging defeat. 

If you’re praised for finishing second—finishing beyond expectations but falling short of the NCAA Tournament—then how will you grasp the urgency and understand the commitment necessary for accomplishing a goal?

We gravitate to underdog stories and embattled programs, even if the endings aren’t rosy. Canisius hasn’t been to the Big Dance in 17 years (‘96) or the National Invitational Tournament in 18, while the University at Buffalo has never been to the NCAA Tournament, bowing in two MAC championship games (‘05, ‘08).

The situations are a little brighter both southeast and north of Buffalo—behind Andrew Nicholson’s dominance, St. Bonaventure reached the NCAA Tournament last year, while Niagara and Joe Mihalich cut down the nets in 2007—and even won a play-in game.

This is the kind of success we need from Buffalo basketball; no one expects a WNY school to place in the 68-team field every year, we just need a few glimmers to realize that the dream can be a reality.

Is our “good try, good effort” attitude a symptom of college athletics, where athletes—some just out of high school and few who can drink legally—are still in the formative stages of their lives and are treated as such?

Or is this a slightly-defeatist mentality representative of old-school, Rust Belt Buffalo, a city that “prides” itself in losing four-straight Super Bowls or housing glorious grain elevators and steel mills long ago?

Do other cities champion mediocrity, past glory and near-misses—because that’s all they have?

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After Canisius bowed out of the MAAC Tournament, Baron choked up with the realization that the 18-win Griffs’ season had ended unceremoniously in the quarterfinals against a hot Iona team. The junior guard acted as if he knew the Griffs underachieved given their talent, as the Griffs showed all the ingredients to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

Chris Manhertz is a high-major level rebounder, Isaac Sosa was a relentless threat from deep, Harold Washington brought speed and transition scoring, and Jordan Heath altered shots at one end and vultured for put-back slams at the other. Alshwan Hymes, Freddy Asprilla and Josiah Heath brought valuable bulk, fouls and minutes off the pine.

Billy Baron was the glue, the leader-defender-scorer-rebounder-facilitator hybrid that brought all the pieces together, making his teammates better through his will and toughness.

Everyone else focused on the program’s transformation from a five-win season under Tom Parrotta to the most wins since 2001 under Jim Baron, calling it a “great season” that unfortunately collided with a hot team at the wrong time.

Inclusion in that 68-team field was Canisius’ goal in the preseason, and the former Virginia and Rhode Island point guard—named MAAC Co-MVP by CollegeInsider.com—wouldn’t be satisfied with anything else.

We’re not the only media outlet that thinks Canisius fell short of expectations rather than overachieved— just ask the school newspaper.

You think Baron is ecstatic with Canisius’ invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), the perfect punctuation to a season that turned a program around? I don’t think he is.

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McCrea’s reaction to losing is no different, if a little more exaggerated because he makes his feelings more obvious through expressions and body language—instead of just blank stares, McCrea scowls and shakes his head as well. I’m convinced there’s nothing he hates more than losing—not even former Akron player Steve McNees or current Kent State Golden Flash Mark Henniger.

While I’m not at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland after UB’s 70-68 quarterfinal loss to Kent State—a game that the Bulls had opportunity after opportunity to win—you can bet that McCrea is stewing.

It’s easy to harken back to the MAC quarterfinals in 2011 where UB dropped a 73-62 effort to the No. 1-seed Golden Flashes, despite a Herculean 28-point effort from then-freshman Javon McCrea—and virtually no production from anyone else.

He’s a legitimate second-round NBA prospect, and as a result he’s had to shoulder most of UB’s burden this year. Three close losses to the Golden Flashes will sting all summer, especially the last one where he settled for several 18-footers in the second half instead of attacking the basket with his usual unbridled ferocity.

He’ll beat himself up for it and, judging by how his free-throw shooting improved over last summer, will come back an even better player for his senior year.

But that’s fine—McCrea’s steady excellence, Jarryn Skeete’s rapid development and Will Regan’s MAC Tournament explosion took the Bulls, a team that most Mid-American Conference followers had written off early in the season, within a few possessions of the semifinals against Akron, a foe UB upset at Alumni Arena less than a fortnight ago. 

Regardless, local media outlets have pegged UB’s loss in the quarterfinals as a “great tournament”—as apparently knocking off two West Division competitors is a monster deal.

Excuses are plentiful for the University at Buffalo. Starting point guard Jarod Oldham missed much of the season with a broken wrist. Valuable depth player Raphell Thomas-Edwards suited up all year despite an agonizing back injury. Heralded freshman Stan Wier was red-shirted because he was recovering from knee woes. In a program that almost always plays a deep rotation, the Bulls’ starters regularly played over 30 minutes. Plus, UB rarely showed a killer instinct—the Bulls were 5-12 in games decided by fewer than 10 points.

Still, it’s hard to call a 14-20 season a “success” because of two tournament wins. After McCrea’s freshman year, the Bulls seemed destined to at least reach a Mid-American Conference final before his senior season. That hasn’t happened yet—and there will be a lot of pressure on the Bulls next year, as missing out on the NCAA Tournament during McCrea’s career—which has been one of the best in school history already—would be a disappointment, a wasted opportunity.

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What Canisius accomplished during the regular season was terrific—probably program-altering—but there’s no reason to settle. The Griffs sacrificed last season—holding onto three transfers instead of using those scholarships for players who could contribute immediately—to win the MAAC in 2012-13, and that quest fell short.

Without Washington, Sosa, Asprilla, Hymes and Groves next year, it’ll be an uphill climb for Baron to reach the NCAA Tournament in Canisius’ blue-and-gold.

UB is in better shape with the return of Oldham—maybe even a medical red-shirt—and the debut of Wier, Reggie Witherspoon’s incoming freshman class and a more confident Regan. The Bulls’ performance in the conference tournament should be a good indicator of how good this Bulls team can be—only Tony Watson II and Richie Sebuharara graduate.

The MAC should be down next year: Ohio loses Cooper, Offutt, Baltic and Keely, while Akron loses star center Zeke Marshall and reserve wing Chauncey Gilliam—but downing the deep Zips will be a tall task for UB. 

The chance for Buffalo schools to have athletes as gifted as Baron and McCrea—for multiple seasons—comes around roughly every 20 years for a mid-major school not named Butler or VCU. Players are remembered not just for their individual records, but how far they carried their teams into the post-season. Neither Baron nor McCrea have reached the final of a conference tournament, and it’ll be a shame if they don’t.

We can praise positive seasons, but we cannot settle for quarterfinal losses.

(Photos courtesy of Robin David Brown—here’s the Canisius vs. UB gallery he shot early in the year).

TAGGED: big 4 basketball, billy baron, canisius griffins, hoops, javon mccrea, jim baron, maac tournament, mac tournament, reggie witherspoon, ub bulls

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