Students filed into Alumni Arena with an excitement that I hadn't yet seen for the men's basketball team. A year prior, before the program's first conference championship and in the first game without all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea, this kind of showing was unthinkable. Thirty minutes before tip-off of the men's season opener versus Division-III Pitt-Bradford the student section was packed. Buffalo vanquished the Panthers that night after starting the game with a 26-0 lead.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, that matchup wasn't indicative of the next twelve games. Ahead of them was a non-conference schedule built for a team returning plenty of experienced talent, something that was no longer the case. Duke, Iowa State, VCU, and St. Joseph's were all opponents everyone knew would be inimical to Buffalo's record. Two of those teams made this year's Sweet Sixteen and the other two missed by a combined total of nine points. UB dropped all four.
After throttling Pitt-Bradford, Buffalo looked much different against D-I competition.
The Bulls went on the road for ODU and SJU. Coming into the season, the Monarchs were expected to be a solid top-50 team. UB would also take a trip to Connecticut and play in the Springfield Bracket of the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off.
The Bulls might as well have been a bunch of recruits at an AAU game vying for a scholarship offer. Isolation basketball was in full force, team chemistry seemed non-existent, and their socks didn't match. (Only two of these things were actually troubling, unless you were an ODU commentator.) Preseason predictions seemed about right and UB's three active returning players looked to pick up most of the slack. Even in their wins over a decimated North Carolina A&T program and Vermont, the Bulls had to fight tooth and nail.
Many were ready to call it quits this early into the season. Those people failed to see what I saw. The footage is now long gone, but a flash of excellence peered through the cracks against the Hawks. Early in the second half, Buffalo went on a three minute, 11-2 run in Philly, moving the ball around, playing phenomenal defense, and finding no trouble on offense. The potential this team had was apparent, but there was enough negative light from the blowout loss to blind us all.
Rise of CJ "Buckets" Massinburg
A year ago, CJ Massinburg's hopes of playing Division I ball were at the end of the rope. The end of the recruiting period loomed and his final doorway was shut when the University of San Francisco offered a different player. The Dallas, Texas native truly believed he had the talent to compete in Division I.
Massinburg soon got a call from Jim Whitesell, Buffalo's associate head coach. Whitesell got a tip from a friend and coach at Louisiana Tech. The school no longer needed a shooting guard and encouraged the coach who had just arrived at Buffalo to check out the 6'3" option.
Whitesell was impressed and told Nate Oats that they should use their last available scholarship on Massinburg. When CJ visited Buffalo, he was told that he would need to work for his minutes and that he might be more of a "farther down the line" type of player. Fine with that and returning home, he signed his NLI the next day.
I'll be honest, after the open practice at the beginning of the season, I completely agreed with Coach Oats' assessment that we wouldn't be seeing much of Massinburg early on.
But then the unthinkable happened.
His 19 and 25 point efforts against Daemen and Pitt-Bradford seemed like flukes as both came against non-Division I competition. The freshman kept a chip on his shoulder and the points showings kept coming. On December 5th, the combo guard created a name for himself. CJ went lights-out in the second half versus #5 Duke, going 6-7 from the field. He finished the night with 17 points and from then on was known as CJ "Buckets". Massinburg went on to score in double digits in four of the next five games.
Limping Through Non-Conference
Despite the success of CJ "Buckets", the Bulls still had wrinkles to iron out. Buffalo squandered an opportunity to steal the only toss up game on the schedule from the free throw line, falling to St. Bonaventure by just two points.
UB lost to both #2 Iowa State and #5 Duke, despite challenging both. It looked like the Bulls were trying to pass more, but the assists still weren't there, as Buffalo only averaged 10 assists per game at this point in the season.
Seniors Rodell Wigginton and Jarryn Skeete began to cool off. Wigginton also saw less playing time as the Nova Scotian only saw nine minutes of action versus Iowa State. JUCO players like Blake Hamilton and Willie Conner found their footing and filled this void.
UB only had one marquee opponent left on the non-conference schedule with VCU. The other three games were expected to be wins for a team that challenged Iowa State late in the second half. The VCU game proved to be another blowout loss for the Bulls. Buffalo couldn't handle the press and turned the ball over 31 times.
Games against Binghamton and Montana State made the men look more like a cohesive unit. Shooting percentages were up and the assists totals were much higher than earlier in the season. The team was finally starting to gel. The only problem that looked apparent is that it would take a full 40 minutes for Buffalo to put away these teams.
Non-conference play was nearing the end as Delaware remained. For the first time of the season, the Bulls put together a full 40 minute effort and never seemed to be in danger of losing the game. It was the only game of the season that 20 or more assists were tallied.
It was clear that Buffalo was good enough to be in the top-half of the MAC after their blowout win versus Delaware. The progress the team made in non-conference was unprecedented for many Bulls fans. Buffalo had a tough test ahead of them as MAC favorite Akron and second in line Kent State were the first two games of conference play. UB would find out early how well they stacked up.