BUFFALO, N.Y. — Must-win regular season games don’t exist in the Mid-American Conference. There’s no need for a win-or-go-home mindset.
What matters is putting everything together in early March, in the MAC Tournament, to vie for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday was a chance for the Bobcats to show they can put it all together and compete with Buffalo, the top team in the MAC. It was a chance to build on consecutive wins — no small feat this year — and legitimize a brief stretch of late-season success.
Instead, Ohio took a 108-82 loss that brings back issues that have carried through the season: injuries and inconsistency.
“Coming in here and beating Buffalo would’ve been big,” forward Doug Taylor said. “But I think this is a little bit more of a blessing for us. Just to humble ourselves going into the (MAC) Tournament. Us coming off a two-game win streak makes us a little complacent with opposition.”
Complacency based off consecutive wins? It’s been that kind of season for the Bobcats.
With the loss, Ohio (12-16, 5-11 MAC) ensured it won’t have a bona fide win streak — that is, a string of three or more games. That happened three years ago in the 10-20 season, the only other time since at least 2002.
Sure, the offense is clicking. In its past seven games, Ohio is averaging 85 points (10 better than season average) and 17 assists (three better). But the defense was atrocious against the Bulls, allowing the more points than any Ohio team since a quadruple-overtime game in 2010 against St. Bonaventure.
And an overarching theme of the year, injuries, surfaced once more: Shooting guard Jordan Dartis, who scored 43 points combined in Ohio’s recent pair of wins, moved sluggishly through the first half due to his recurring hip problems.
Dartis returned for the first three minutes of the second half, but coach Saul Phillips pulled him after that. Phillips said the score, which was 62-48 for Buffalo at that time, didn’t factor into his decision.
“He was hurting bad enough I didn’t feel I had the choice but to pull him,” Phillips said. “He wasn't able to do what he could do and we all know he’s playing through pain anyway.”
That’s not good. Dartis is already practicing on a limited basis, saving his hip strength for games as much as he can. He sat out twice before facing Kent State, then went out and scored 23 in a game-changing performance.
If Dartis doesn’t play until March 5, when the MAC Tournament begins, Ohio has a better chance of dropping one or both of its final regular season games. But that really doesn’t matter.
Since 2000, the MAC has been a one-bid conference, in which only the conference tournament winner moved on to the NCAA Tournament.
Phillips still claims he isn’t looking at the conference standings, which is becoming harder to believe. The Bobcats remain in a four-way tie for ninth, meaning Saturday was a missed opportunity to move up in the standings.
They also missed a prime chance to grow and prove themselves in the MAC. The time to do so is running out.
“We’ll grow, don’t get me wrong,” Phillips said. “But a missed chance to gain more confidence going toward the tournament. Other than that, I’m not too analytical about big picture stuff right now.”