Confetti rained down onto a Buffalo Bulls Men’s Basketball team that went through enormous adversity a year ago. Returning almost every piece to the same Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio a year later, it was not the same sight. Instead there was frustration from officiating, empty stares, and tears from a senior who kept the momentum going for a program on the rise.
But, you can’t be upset for what happened this season. This year was by no means a failure when you really look at it. In reality Buffalo has surpassed expectations two years in a row, and if you fail to acknowledge that, you’re part of the “MAC Championship or bust” segment of the fan base that needs a reality check.
Expectations everywhere to be found
There was nothing but good to look forward to last summer for UB fans. The Bulls pulled everything together for an unlikely MAC Championship run and only two role players were graduating from that roster. When I briefly spoke to associate head coach Jim Whitesell over the summer, he was adamant about UB getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season.
That kind of thinking wasn’t crazy. All of the players on the roster coming back were settled in and improving. Nick Perkins hit the gym and sculpted some muscle to make himself a stronger forward, CJ Massinburg spent a ton of time on ball handling, and the Bulls were also bringing in the best recruiting class in history.
Early August is when the bad news came. Point guard Lamonte Bearden declared intent on transferring to a different school and started garnering Power Five interest. Buffalo had to move on through the next season without the point guard that lead the way to back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles.
Optimism remained high around the program. UB inked Rochester native Dontay Caruthers — who many weren’t impressed with at the time — and three-star point guard Davonta Jordan to ease the pain of Bearden leaving. Business remained as usual and neither the fans nor the team’s expectations dwindled.
An unpleasant start
When Alumni Arena opened its doors to begin UB’s season with an exhibition face-off with Daemen, Bulls fans left with a sour taste in their mouth. Pulling out an 87-82 victory over the Division II opponent, Buffalo struggled the entire night and 85 out of 87 points came from just three players.
The team chemistry seemed lacking and that continued for all of non-conference play. Buffalo found themselves at 4-5 and riding a three game losing streak after games against St. Bonaventure, Pittsburgh, and nationally ranked Creighton.
Much like a game against St. Joseph’s from a year before, the Bulls showed their true potential in the matchup with Pittsburgh. Starting the game with a crushing 30-6 deficit, the Bulls put together an amazing rally to be down just eight at the half. With just 49 seconds left in the game, UB was down only three points before losing thanks to amazing performances from Nick Perkins, CJ Massinburg, and Blake Hamilton.
UB evened out their overall record at 5-5 when they returned home to face Coppin State, but it wasn’t convincing enough. UB still appeared to be lacking in the chemistry department, especially when Davonta Jordan and Nikola Rakićević were verbally sparring at each other during this game.
Only three of Buffalo’s wins at this point were against Division I opponents and none of them were against teams with a KenPom rating higher than 180. Worst of all, most of the same problems — turnovers and a sputtering offense come to mind — remained unchanged.
The tipping point
The Big 4 Classic returned to KeyBank Center this year when the arena needed to hold a basketball event before hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo was matched up with cross-town rival Canisius with a lot on the line. This was a game the Bulls needed to win not only because of a former UB coach being on the opposite bench, but because the Golden Griffins were not as good as Buffalo talent wise.
Canisius fought with grit for forty minutes and UB lacked effort on defense for the entire game. The Bulls fell in overtime and fans quickly began hitting the panic button. Nate Oats admitted after the game that the team didn’t take it seriously enough heading into it and senior wing Willie Conner agreed with the statement shortly after.
This game did not look good with conference play looming, but it only got worse. Four days later, Buffalo went back down to Pittsburgh to face a very bad Robert Morris team. Buffalo gave up 22 turnovers and shot an abysmal 41% on the night and with the offense going stagnant late, the Bulls lost the game.
When conference play started a couple of weeks later, the Bulls were eviscerated by a less than stellar Toledo team in one of the most morale draining performances in recent memory.
Sometimes in life you know when the magic just isn’t there. You feel it just before Joe Licata throws his collegiate career ending interception against UMass, in a matchup against Akron in a sold-out Alumni Arena, and the aforementioned loss to Toledo. Buffalo just didn’t seem to have it, whatever it may be. This season didn’t carry the same feeling of rallying from 6-6 to win a first-ever MAC Championship or taking an almost completely different roster to win a second consecutive title.
The clock’s running
The Toledo loss didn’t sit well and neither did the rest of the month of January. To end the month the Bulls lost back-to-back games with the worst team in the conference and the best team of the conference. Making the losses even more morale crushing, both games were lost by a free throw.
Nate Oats needed a solution and he was on the clock with MAC play running out. His original plan going forward was to relieve Blake Hamilton from running the point and having Massinburg and Caruthers share the role. Hamilton would then go back to the role he thrived in a year earlier at the four.
Hamilton wasn’t keen on the idea.
Sitting down with Oats, Blake plead his case to keep leading the offense down the floor. Oats explained why he thought the move was necessary: Hamilton wasn’t running the offense at a pace to his liking and he also wasn’t getting the rest of the offense involved enough. Nate noticed how if the rest of the players weren’t getting involved, they weren’t energized on the defensive side of the ball either.
But much like any senior leader should, Hamilton promised to make the fixes needed to get Buffalo back in championship form. He quickly put in the work, redeeming himself after comments Oats said following the Ball State loss about not practicing hard enough.
Rolling through February
Hamilton thrived with a newfound awareness at running the point to finally get the Bulls some consistency at the top of the key. Along with him, several other Bulls surged in the month of February.
David Kadiri quickly became the best forward the team had to offer on both ends of the floor. His interior defense was unmatched by many and he consistently brought in 10-12 points a night off of put back tip-ins and dunks. Oddly enough, it was the first and the right time in Kadiri’s college career that you could call him consistent.
One of the most notable players was Dontay Caruthers. February was the month that helped the redshirt-sophomore guard win MAC defensive player of the year. Guards throughout the MAC caved when they were matched up with Caruthers—including the nation’s leading scorer Marcus Keene.
Buffalo finished out the season at a blistering pace and won eight of their last ten. Everything came together for the Bulls to win games of all types (See: 65-45 v. NIU and 101-91 v. CMU). Once again, the Bulls were the dark horse heading into the MAC Tournament, and a shot at the three-peat was certainly there.
Defending MAC Champs no more
Edging their way into a #3 seed for the MAC tournament, Buffalo clinched a bye for the fourth time in a row to Cleveland for the MAC quarterfinals. When the quarterfinals approached, the Bulls found their matchup to be against a peaking Kent State team and the eventual Mid-American Conference Champions.
It wasn’t their fault, but the Bulls played their ugliest game of the season. Officiating for the #3-#6 matchup was awful for both sides. In a game that had a frustrating count of 56 fouls, Buffalo ultimately failed to win in the 68-65 affair, ending their season.
Buffalo played several of the final minutes without their star in Hamilton. The senior fouled out along with other players on both sides and his career finished in the most heartbreaking way. You could most definitely argue a case for three of the fouls he received that night, but in the end arguing whether or not it should’ve happened gets you nowhere.
Wasn’t meant to be
Calling the season a failure or even saying expectations weren’t met is foolish. The Bulls were only supposed to win one MAC Championship in this two year span since Nate Oats took over the Buffalo program (if that). Oats has prevented a fallout in the program that can usually happen in the first couple of years with a new coaching staff. Not only has he prevented that fallout, but he’s elevated the program to new heights.
There were definitely a few pieces that were missing from winning a third straight MAC title this year. You can balk on twitter or ask the same question in every press conference you attend about there being no true point guard, but I don’t believe that was the case. UB’s best stretch of the season was with Blake Hamilton at the point, and it was some of the best basketball the Oats era has had to offer.
Instead, I see the problem as there weren’t enough players that could score consistently and that the freshman class did not step up like the previous year before. If you look at the box scores game by game, it’s a constant stream of points from a small round table of players. Blake Hamilton, CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, Willie Conner, and David Kadiri were the only players on the roster that could realistically get to double-digit scoring on any given night.
Unfortunately, when you aren’t deep at scoring the ball, it can come back to haunt you and I think that really hurt the Bulls for much of the season. The good news is that the latter stretch of the season saw players like Dontay Caruthers and Raheem Johnson step up offensively.
UB’s freshman class was essential to winning a title last year with the likes of Massinburg, Perkins, and Ikenna Smart bringing crucial minutes to the table. This year however was not the same. Only one freshman made a great impact this year and he spent a large portion of the final stretch on the bench for injury. Quate McKinzie was an incredibly active defender on the interior and seemed to be hitting his stride offensively before the injury.
Buffalo’s other freshman weren’t on the same level of success that McKinzie was able to experience. Davonta Jordan received a ton of minutes in the early going but saw his minutes slashed in half when Hamilton stepped up at point. Jordan was not a good shooter and his defense really put the team in bad situations for much of non-conference play.
Then there’s Brock Bertram and James Jones. Bertram was a three star recruit but took a red-shirt year to develop, which you can’t necessarily blame him for. James Jones on the other hand just wasn’t good enough to make the impact many thought he would as a freshman.
Finally, I think one of the biggest problems Buffalo faced was the lack of a low post scoring threat. The Bulls didn’t have one last year either, but with Blake Hamilton at the four, the problem was alleviated to a bearable extent. This year with Hamilton at the point, it stretched the post thin. I think if there’s any problem that needs to be addressed down the line, it’s the need for someone to step up down low and give the Bulls their first real scoring threat there since Justin Moss.
An important senior class graduates
When it was announced that he would be the next head coach for the Bulls, Nate Oats and his staff needed to get on the recruiting trail quickly to survive his first season. As junior college transfers, Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner, and David Kadiri made an enormous impact on preventing the stalling out of Buffalo Basketball.
There’s no way that a second MAC Championship makes it back to Buffalo without this trio. There’s no buzzer beating shot without Blake Hamilton, probably no wins in the MAC Tourney wins without Conner, and Kadiri’s interior defense — although underappreciated — was priceless.
Then there’s Raheem Johnson. Important for the original MAC tourney run, Johnson was hands down the best guy to relieve Justin Moss when he needed rest. Late in this most recent season, Johnson put together some of his best efforts and thrived with the extra dose of minutes.
Without this group of seniors, the landscape of this program is very different. They all performed above expectations when they got here. Bulls fans will definitely miss the skill sets they had to offer next season. Although it ended on a sour note, the good news is that everyone in this group is leaving with a MAC Championship ring.
If there’s one way to sum up Buffalo head coach Nate Oats’ tenure, it’s “not everything works out as planned.” Finishing his second year as a head coach at a Division I program, Oats has done more than enough to prove he belongs at this level of coaching—and maybe even at a higher level. I have a strong feeling that Oats will be at a Power Five job somewhere down the line, taking a team to the tournament almost every year.
He’s a fantastic x’s and o’s coach who knows how to get the best possible outcome from the roster that he has at that time. That’s why he seems to be able to win no matter what kind of setbacks he has to go through, whether it’s losing the defending MAC Player of the Year or your starting point guard.
But what I think truly sets Oats above the rest is how good of a manager he is with the program. His staff hires are the best in the conference and he appears to delegate many tasks in a trusting manner to the rest of the staff. His only staff hire that was questionable was Bryan Hodgson, but fans quickly learned why he fit the puzzle.
The Hodgson hire is one of the smartest moves Oats has made so far. Many fans thought Hodgson was hired to keep Maurice O’Field committed to the program—who later headed to Arizona State. But without Bryan Hodgson, there is no Blake Hamilton or Willie Conner. His recruiting skills are the best this program has seen as he brings superior knowledge of the JUCO ranks to his recruiting.
Oats has had not one, but two former NBA players join his staff. It’s crazy to think that a former NBA player with two championships and NBA head coaching experience came to Buffalo to be an assistant coach under Oats.
It comes back full circle to why Nate Oats is this successful despite being relatively inexperienced at the Division I level. He’s obviously a good coach, but that doesn’t separate him from your typical assistant at this level. What separates him is that managerial ability. The guy simply knows how to put the right people in a spot to help him succeed, and that ability is invaluable.
The future looks bright
As long as Nate Oats is head coach for Buffalo, I see the Bulls being a top-four team in the MAC every year. That keeps the program in contention for winning the conference title and I’d be shocked that Oats doesn’t bring another title or two before he inevitably move on to a bigger job.
This season didn’t end the way anyone who followed the program wanted, but you can’t deny the great things that are happening. The Bulls are probably not the favorites to win the conference next year, but the incoming recruiting class has been raved about throughout social media.
This upcoming season should also be the first where there aren’t any unexpected surprises for Oats and his staff. Even better, there shouldn’t be any changes in his staff either, helping out in the stability department.
Although there are a lot of questions to be answered about next year, there is one thing for certain. Oats and his staff will find the best way to win games with the roster they have and get everything they can out of it. When you know that you have a coach that can do that, the future looks bright.