SCHOPP: Bulls are changing the game

For those that haven't been diehards, is UB becoming a habit?

Mike Schopp
March 21, 2019 - 12:46 pm

Photo: Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports

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When we enter the online system here through which we post our articles, there's a tab called "Sports Team". We're to pick between the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres.

Whoops.

2019 marks four times in five years for the Buffalo Bulls in the men's NCAA Tournament (and two years running for the women's team). Under college basketball great Bobby Hurley, UB gave West Virginia a tough first round game in 2015. The next year, with Hurley having departed for Arizona State, Nate Oats led UB to another trip, where they lost by seven to Miami. Last year, UB got its first tournament win by blowing out Arizona before falling to Kentucky.

We'll see what happens this time, with UB running roughshod through the regular season and conference tournament to the tune of a 31-3 record. Friday, the Bulls will face Hurley's new team, Arizona State.

Most of you knew all this, probably. When writing about the Bills or Sabres I rarely feel any need to lay out the back story. I assume you know it. Those teams are lifelong habits for us. With UB, I'm not as sure. To be honest, I had to look up whether that Miami game was in 2016 or 2017.

There's room in my brain for this information. And there's room in my heart.

Real success is almost too long ago to remember, but for me with the Bills and Sabres it goes like this: The season starts and there's anticipation and analysis over whether a championship is realistic. To win it all you've got to make the playoffs, and that becomes the first goal. As long as there is that possibility, I'm locked in. Once there isn't, I'd rather watch Top Chef.

The postseason is everything -- to teams, to players, to fans. Celebrations over regular season successes are considered a joke. Fans buy season tickets so that they're in the right place for playoff games. Teams in all sports are now willing to tank seasons for better draft picks; 0-16, we are now all free to agree, is better than 6-10.

If you follow two sports teams so dedicatedly, and you want to make room for, you know, family and other things, you probably put the rest of sports on a lower tier. Maybe you make time for the postseason, and they're great for the occasional date night, but that's about the limit. The Bisons, the Bandits, the Beauts ... my family attends, and it's always fun. For me, the Bills and Sabres are teams where I always know the latest. For the rest, I'm used to not finding out how they did until the morning after.

For me, UB may be changing that.

This season, I knew when the men were playing, and I'd follow their games if I could. I'd usually go to bed knowing whether they won. This happened because the season was so outstanding, yes, but more because the last four seasons were too. We're now used to the Bulls being good.

I'm excited for Oats and everybody associated with the program. I'm jealous of loyal UB fans who can trace their steps throughout the program's ascension. They're your indie band! Everybody's having a lot of fun with this and you guys are having the most. I think it's all really special and great.

The thing I think I'm going to need for UB to become a sports "habit" for me, the way the Sabres and Bills became one when I was a child, is to have regular season outcomes matter more than they do. For the pro teams, the goal is the playoffs -- and despite their pathetic track records they both play in leagues where lots of teams make the postseason each year. Who knew! For UB, playing in the Mid-American Conference, those regular season games mean so little to their ultimate fate. A MAC team making the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament? Good luck. (UB would have been one had they lost in the conference tournament, but that didn't happen.)

Maybe UB would have to change conferences for this to be different. If their conference tended to send, say, three teams to the tournament each year, then their regular-season games would take on extra importance. Then, those mid-season road games in-conference really would matter.

Either way, this time of year is always a blast, and UB has made it even better.

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