One day away from the start of the Mid-American Conference tournament and Central Michigan head coach Ernie Zeigler remains on the lookout for one of his players to step up.
During the MAC coaches’ conference call with members of the media Monday, Zeigler said his team is still struggling for leadership as it prepares for its first round game Tuesday night at Buffalo.
“We’re challenging our inner-self,” he said during the call. “We got guys with their first go-around in MAC tournament play and hopefully we can get some leadership from our seniors if need be and put ourselves in a position to compete and sneak one out of here.”
CMU (10-20 overall) enters the tournament having lost two of its last three, both opportunities to clinch a first round home game. Despite a 23-point second-half collapse to Ball State at home on Feb. 26, the Chippewas remained in a good position heading into their regular season finale on Saturday against Western Michigan.
But everything that could wrong for CMU did. The Chippewas suffered their second loss of the season to rival Western Michigan, while Bowling Green – riding a six-game losing streak into its final game at Anderson Arena – knocked off Buffalo to jump over UB and CMU for the No. 7 seed in the tournament.
Now, in order to keep its season alive, CMU will have to endure another 8-hour bus ride and pull off a win against a Bulls team that beat the Chippewas soundly one month ago.
“We were in the same mood (after the Ball State loss),” Zeigler said. “We just got to let it go and fuel our disappointment and frustration with each other and internalize that and have the same type of response. We were able to fuel that and go on the road to Toledo and came together. That’s what we’re trying to be able to derive upon as we in a similar situation here two weekends in a row.”
In the 72-43 loss on Feb. 8, the Chippewas shot just 27.3 percent from the floor, while senior forward Jalin Thomas and freshman forward Trey Zeigler combined to go 7-of-29.
The Bulls, meanwhile, shot 46 percent, carried by a career-high 29 points on 9-of-13 shooting from guard Byron Mulkey.
Zeigler said it’s going to take a more consistent offense and better defensive effort for his team to advance to the quarterfinals in Cleveland.
“To win on the road you have to be able to knock down shots and understand the type of shots you’re going to get,” he said. “It’s understanding that we’ve had a tough regular season, we have not been a good team in the regular season, but why not us? In order to answer that question, some person or persons have to step up a higher level from a leadership standpoint and consistent play standpoint in a tournament format.”
Buffalo (17-12 overall) comes into the tournament losers of three of its last four games and five of its last seven. Despite the recent struggles, the team is 12-3 at home and finished the season as the top shooting team in the conference, averaging better than 48 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from behind 3-point distance.
Despite its 72-43 win over the Chippewas last month, UB head coach Reggie Witherspoon isn’t looking past his first round opponent.
“We have to really sharpen our focus and concentrate on that game before we can even talk about Cleveland,” UB head coach Reggie Witherspoon said during the call. “I thought the (CMU) we played was better than the outcome of the game. We’re going to have to be at our best to have a chance to succeed.”
CMU vs. Buffalo
Tipoff: 7 p.m., Alumni Arena (Amherst, N.Y.)
TV/Radio: None/CMU Sports Network (95.3 WCFX-FM, 98.5 WUPS-FM)
Previous meeting: Byron Mulkey scored a career-high 29 points in Buffalo’s 72-43 win over the Chippewas. CMU leads the all-time series, 12-9.
Join Sports Editor Aaron McMann for a live chat of the game beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday from Alumni Arena.