By Budd Bailey
Let’s put it this way: If the Akron Zips are the 113th best men’s college basketball team in the country (ESPN Basketball Power Index), then Team No. 112 must be really, really good.
Akron was far too powerful for its competition on Tuesday night, blasting the University at Buffalo, 81-64, in Alumni Arena.
If anything, that score was deceiving. The Bulls fell behind by a score of 32-12 with 5:42 left in the first half. At that point, it wouldn’t have been surprising if a boxing referee ran on to the court, waving his hands and saying “That it; you’ve suffered enough.”
“Getting off to a great start is huge,” UB coach Jim Whitesell said. “You’ve got to execute on both ends. … Give Akron credit. I thought they were really sharp tonight.”
The Zips were content to trade baskets the rest of the way, knowing they were in control. Their only flat spot came in the later stages of the second half. UB scored nine straight points to cut Akron’s lead to 68-56. But before the 5,001 in the building started to think about a miracle, the Zips went on an 11-4 run that included three three-pointers (more on that aspect of the game in a moment) that had many reaching for their winter coats.
Yes, Akron is good. It has won seven games in a row and is now 8-1 in conference play. The Zips haven’t lost a home game all season, and look like a team that has a chance to return to the NCAA tournament in March.
Buffalo had its hands full with Akron’s duo of guard Xavier Castaneda and forward Enrique Freeman. Casteneda put on a show with 32 points, including 10 of 12 on field goals (7 of 8 on three-pointers).Freeman added 18 points on 9 of 15 shooting, and he led his team in rebounds with 9.
If there’s a better combination in the MAC, the Bulls aren’t interested in seeing it for a while.
“They are as good as advertised,” Whitesell said. “They are outstanding players. Both have chances to play after college. The one thing Castaneda does is not take hard shots. Look at his percentage – he shoots with a lot of confidence. He’s smart. He stretches the defense.
“Freeman is an interesting kid. He came here as a walk-on. It shows how much hard work can get you. He’s been outstanding. There were a lot of nights when he struggled, and he kept getting better and better. We’ve got to focus better.”
Now, about those three-pointers. Akron was an imposing 12 of 18 from downtown Tuesday night. One of them was even a four-point play, so the Zips piled up 37 points on the night that way. UB was only 4 of 19 on three-pointers for 12 points. That’s a 25-point difference in that one area, and such a statistic is usually decisive.
“They got some transition threes from us running back too deep,” Whitesell said. “That was disappointing with our attention to detail. They made some tough ones. But Castaneda is an elite shooter. He’s done that all season for them. That was an area that was disappointing. Then when they were rotating the ball, they got some open threes – right to the end. Give them credit, hey shot the ball awfully well.”
Curtis Jones has been the Bulls’ most consistent offensive threat this season, and he maintained that reputation against Akron. The guard had 19 points in 35 minutes to lead his team. Isaiah Adams finished with 13. But some mistakes on offense led to several baskets at the other end.
“They had 26 points off our turnovers,” Whitesell said. “I think that’s a little bit of our theme this year. When we take care of the ball, we play at a pretty good level. When we don’t take care of the ball, we have a problem.”
UB’s last four games have been against the leaders of the Mid-American Conference. While the Bulls thumped Ball State – and on the road, no less – they have come up short against Toledo, Kent State and now Akron. That’s a rather significant trend, and Buffalo needs to pick up its game in order to get out of the middle of the pack as the conference tournament starts to loom in the distance.
“This game was tough, but the other two, we had a chance to win,” Jones said. “I didn’t shoot my best last game. I think we can beat them, but we have to go back and go to work. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”
The first chance to turn the situation around will be on Saturday night at Western Michigan. Then Eastern Michigan comes to Alumni Arena on February 7.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)