CLEVELAND — The streamers fell, the music swelled, and the cell phones rose at the end of a phalanx of arms to record every smile, huge, and championship t-shirt.
The mood was celebratory. And there was a good reason for it. The Buffalo Bulls stopped plucky Bowling Green, 87-73, inside Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night to polish off one of the best seasons in Mid-American Conference history.
Buffalo (31-3) has more wins than any other in conference history. The Bulls have won 12 straight games and had just finished wrapping up their fourth tournament championship in five years — a never-before-seen accomplishment in the parity-swathed MAC. Buffalo is the standard bearer, the lead dog — the Gonzaga of the North Coast — in a league were such runs of dominance were thought to be impossible to come by.
“It just shows like what a dynasty this is, this Buffalo program,” said senior guard C.J. Massinburg, a four-year starter and the MAC’s regular-season MVP.
Buffalo lost one head coach four years ago when Bobby Hurley left after the Bulls’ first MAC title in this run. A starting backcourt worth of talent transferred.
It didn’t matter. Fourth-year head coach Nate Oats, an assistant under Hurley, picked up the controls and propelled the program further and higher than ever before. He’s the highest paid coach in the conference, and his salary — north of $800,000 per an extension announcement this week — is 30 percent higher than any other coach at any other program in the history of the MAC.
Buffalo is all in on basketball, and is being noticed.
Oats has built a monster in the MAC. And Saturday’s effort was another example of the depth of talent that not other program in the league can match.
Massinburg was off, and still finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Stout senior forward Nick Perkins had just five points and three rebounds before fouling out in just 22 minutes. The Bulls instead turned to timely buckets from sophomore Jayvon Graves — a Massinburg clone — and the singular talents of senior wing Jeremy Harris.
Harris, a fluid, 6-foot-7 lefty with length, touch and guile, piled up 31 points after hitting 13 of 20 shots. He opened the game with a wicked one-handed slam down the lane. He finished off Bowling Green with seven straight points over a 90-second stretch inside the final four minutes. His back-breaking 3-pointer popped out of cylinder, and then caressed its way back through the net.
“You know, Jeremy was cooking, man, he was cooking,” Massinburg said. “13 of 20, c'mon now, that's efficient. C'mon now, man, that man over there, he something different.”
The tease was emblematic of the Bulls last two nights in Cleveland. Buffalo humiliated Akron in the quarterfinal round, and then weathered a strong effort from Central Michigan in the semifinals.
On that night, like Saturday, the Bulls faced a stiff challenge. But when it came to winning time, there was no doubt who was going to prevail. Bowling Green (22-12), vying to get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968, led 65-63 with 8:16 left. The Bulls finished the game on a 24-8 run.
When someone struggles, or hits a rough patch, there’s another killer (or two) waiting for the chance to break the opponent’s will instead.
The mood on the floor after the game was celebratory. The mood elsewhere around the MAC? I imagine it was the opposite. Be it Toledo, or Athens, or Mount Pleasant, or Akron, everyone knows the score by now.
It’s the Bulls’ league until further notice.
“They’re at another level right now,” said one MAC assistant coach, who wished to remain unnamed, in Cleveland.
“We’re all chasing them, no doubt,” said another.
“No one wants to say it, but we all know it,” said a third. “It’s them, and everybody else.”
When the NCAA Tournament is announced Sunday, the Bulls will likely set another record — the highest seed for a MAC team in conference history. The MAC hasn’t had multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament since 1999, but this year it could have one of the most dangerous.
No MAC team has been seeded eighth or higher since the tournament expanded to 64 in 1985. Buffalo is expected to shatter that on Sunday.
“We won 31 games. I'd be pushing for a 4, and if we got a 5, anything lower than a 5, I'm going to be really disappointed, to be honest with you,” Oats said.
“We want to make it to the second weekend,” he continued, which the MAC hasn’t done since 2012 when Ohio reached the round of 16. “This team is pretty special.”
In Buffalo, the rest of the MAC sees an ascending dynasty that wasn’t derailed by a coaching change. The rest of the conference sees a program that doubled down on the financial support for a program breaking through.
The rest of the MAC sees Buffalo, and thinks ‘That should have been us in 2003.’ Or 2013, or 1990, or any of a dozen points in the league’s history.
They also see the Bulls with five departing seniors among its top seven players. But few see much drop off in the immediate future.
If the Bulls, as currently constructed, stay intact there are going to more celebratory nights in Cleveland, more championships, and more avarice all the way from DeKalb to Kent.
With a bevy of transfers sitting out, junior college players on the way, and a pair of freshmen who had limited minutes because of the top of the roster, the Bulls insist the talent will remain the best collection in the league.
“(Buffalo) has clearly raised the bar,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Saturday afternoon.
And the Bulls have lowered the boom on the rest of the league.
Saturday night wasn’t the end of a brilliant five-year run, Massinburg said. It was just a point in a journey. The dynasty is far from over.
“I'm really excited to see where this Buffalo program will go,” he said. “We got Antwon Johnson in the cage, ready to come out. Gabe Grant ready to come out.
“It’s going to be scary.”
For most of the MAC, it already is.