Bring up the name “Bryan Hodgson” with anybody in the University at Buffalo’s men’s basketball program and certain themes stand out at a moment’s notice. An appraisal of him often includes the same reoccurring characteristics: He’s modest, consistent, energetic and a relationship builder. Couple those characteristics with his sheer effort, and it’s quick to realize why he’s one of the best up-and-coming coaches in all of college basketball.
Hodgson enters his third year as an assistant coach for the Bulls and his fingerprints are on every facet of success experienced in a short time. Hired onto UB’s staff for the first year of head coach Nate Oats’ tenure, the Western New York native hit the ground running on the recruiting trail, quickly proving his prowess in that regard.
As soon as the Oats era began, Oats and his staff already experienced an enormous challenge. The Bulls had lost nearly every key piece from a team that received the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth; reigning Mid-American Conference player of the year Justin Moss was dismissed from the University; second-leading scorer Shannon Evans followed Oats’ predecessor, Bobby Hurley, to Arizona State; the Bulls also lost two key seniors in Will Regan and Xavier Ford.
The early stages after hiring a new coach are always shaky. It’s a period of uncertainty in which a program is destroyed or set up for success, with no immediate answer on the outcome. UB’s roster was decimated before Oats’ first season as a head coach began, leaving his lead recruiter in Hodgson with two choices: rebuild or reload.
Buffalo didn’t want to waste time on a rebuilding operation. In an effort to put together the best roster that he can, Hodgson dashed across the country, seeking diamonds in the rough among the junior college (JUCO) ranks. It’s an unorthodox route, as many coaches prefer to recruit freshmen to develop over the course of four years, but if the Bulls wanted to continue their winning ways, they needed more experience than what a freshman can offer.
With little time to recruit before the NCAA’s signing period ended, Hodgson quickly snatched up David Kadiri and Willie Conner from the Western Junior College Athletic Conference (WJCAC). Kadiri quickly became the best interior defender on the team, while Conner’s three-point shot and lockdown perimeter defense were top-notch.
Then with the signing period coming to a close, the Bulls inked Blake Hamilton, a 6-6 wing with the skills to play every position except for center on the court. Without Hamilton, UB wouldn’t have won their second MAC championship in as many years, let alone have a ball handler a year later. Hodgson found Hamilton at a JUCO recuiting showcase in California, holding no other scholarship offers.
The influx of Hodgson’s JUCO recruits paid off immediately. Despite a tough start to the 2015 season, Buffalo roared through MAC play, capping off the year with a buzzer-beating shot from Hamilton in the MAC Championship and a second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. It was a culmination of everything Hodgson has learned to get to this point and it was just a glimpse of what was to come.
Building a career close to home
Bryan Hodgson grew up just seventy miles south of Buffalo in Jamestown, NY. There wasn’t any particular reason that originally put him on the basketball path, but it was something he was good at in his early years.
“I was taller than anybody growing up as a young kid and I just went from there,” Hodgson remembers.
Graduating from Jamestown High School, Hodgson went on to play basketball at Jamestown Community College. Once he finished up community college, his eyes turned to walking on at Winthrop University, a Big South program that at the time made the NCAA Tournament almost every year. But, at the last second, Hodgson decided to stay close to home and enrolled late at Fredonia State.
“At that point I knew that I wanted to coach,” says Hodgson. “I went in to talk to coach [Kevin] Moore and said I wanted to coach. I was in the sports management program, so I needed an internship anyway. So, he hired me as an assistant to get my coaching career started.”
Hodgson spent three years at Fredonia under Moore, including a 2009 season that saw the team win the SUNYAC Championship. Soon, an even better opportunity cropped up. One of his former coaches left JCC to pursue an opportunity in Triple-A Baseball, leaving an opening for the top assistant job at the school.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Hodgson said. “We had scholarship money to play with and I was able to work for the guy that coached me, Mike Cordovano. It was a no-brainer; Jamestown is my hometown and I wanted to go back and work for him.”
Keeping himself even more immersed in basketball throughout his time in Western New York, Hodgson founded the I-90 Elite AAU basketball team, a boys’ basketball program dedicated to getting players college basketball scholarships. While there, he guided the likes of Jaysean Paige (West Virginia, Newcastle Eagles), Jermaine Crumpton (Canisius), JJ Wilkes (Daemen), and Maurice O’Field. He also spent time at several college basketball camps like Duke’s and Syracuse’s, networking with many coaches along the way.
After three years at Jamestown, Hodgson was ready for another step up. He did everything he could there as every recruiting class was better than the last and the win totals kept rising. But JCC didn’t have the resources that other schools in the league did. Both Erie Community College and Monroe Community College had more scholarship money to give out.
After having a base of operations in Western New York for his whole life, Hodgson packed his bags for Texas and took an assistant job under Jordan Dreiling at Midland College. It was another step up as Midland competes in the nation’s best JUCO conference, the WJCAC. Just like his last two jobs, Hodgson experienced success, especially on the recruiting trail.
“Everywhere I went was a step up. I went from Division III Fredonia to a Division II junior college; from a Division II junior college to a Division I junior college. From a recruiting aspect when I got to Midland, recruiting was the same there as it was here,” Hodgson said.
While he was unknowingly coaching against his future players in Conner and Kadiri, Hodgson built a relationship with and signed Dontay Caruthers, the Greater Rochester Player of the Year.
“I felt comfortable with him right off the bat,” Caruthers said. He was a real cool, real humble guy.
Caruthers finished the 2014-15 season as a key contributor to that Midland squad, raking in 10.1 points and 5.0 assists a game. After that year, the Rochester native transferred out and made his way to Indian Hills Community College. Little did he know that his path would intersect with Hodgson’s again.
That same year, Hodgson also left Midland thanks to his newest connection in Nate Oats.
Nate Oats was just an assistant for Bobby Hurley when he met Bryan Hodgson. Being from Jamestown, Hodgson was familiar with Buffalo’s program and he often visited their camps when taking recruiting trips to New York. Oats stayed in contact and soon made a trip out to Midland to recruit one of Hodgson’s players, Maurice O’Field.
O’Field was one of the best JUCO players in the nation at the time. Hurley and Oats wanted another experienced shooting guard, so they turned their attention to the Midland player. It was then that Oats and Hodgson grew closer, cementing a connection to keep in mind for the future.
“I thought he was a hustler,” Oats remembers. “He knew people all over the country kind of like I did when I was a high school coach. In some sense he reminded me of myself a little bit in how he was a basketball junkie that could build relationships and recruit. I liked him and we really hit it off.”
Later that year, the Bulls danced in the NCAA Tournament for the first time and Hurley was hired to take over Arizona State. O’Field de-committed from Buffalo shortly after to follow Hurley, but the time spent on recruiting him didn’t prove to be wasted for the Bulls.
UB athletic director Danny White chose continuity for his next head coach, quickly selecting Nate Oats to keep the train of success moving. While filling out his staff, he remembered Hodgson and his recruiting ability, and the rest was history.
For Hodgson, taking an assistant job at UB was another easy decision to make. It followed his trend of only moving up. It was also close to home, and he truly believed in what UB was doing to instill success with its basketball program.
“It is not difficult to recruit here,” Hodgson states. “This is home for me. I’m passionate about the University, the SUNY system, and Western New York. For me to come back and coach Division I close to my family was a no-brainer, especially for [Oats]. He really gets it. The game’s changed, he understands that and that’s how he coaches and runs our program. It’s a perfect opportunity.”
That passion showed off quickly on the recruiting trail. As the Bulls worked on defending their MAC title with a roster strengthened by his recruits, Hodgson put together one of the greatest signing classes UB has ever seen. The class featured three three-star recruits: Minnesota’s Brock Bertram, North Carolina’s Quate McKinzie, and Florida’s Davonta Jordan.
But, the most important recruit for UB’s next season was Dontay Caruthers. The combo-guard that spent a year with Hodgson was back in the recruiting fold after his time at Indian Hills in Iowa. When Hodgson called, Caruthers jumped at the chance to come to Buffalo, especially after watching the Bulls take on Miami in their second-straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“I had a lot of different coaches calling me,” Caruthers remembers. “But at the end of the day I wanted to come back home. These guys had just won two-straight and I wanted to be a part of that. I’m glad he came back to recruit me; he obviously saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Caruthers quickly became an integral piece to the Bulls once he set foot on the Buffalo hardwood. He was the team’s best defender on the perimeter, shutting down opposing players on a nightly basis. When last season was all said and done, the Rochester native was named the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year. It was the first time a UB player held that accolade.
Although Buffalo didn’t win a third MAC title last season, they were right in the hunt. Without the likes of Hamilton, Conner, Caruthers, and Kadiri, it’s safe to say the Bulls wouldn’t be in that conversation. Hodgson’s recruiting prowess had turned UB into a yearly MAC contender.
Flash forward to this season and the Bulls have reloaded with another impressive recruiting class. Hodgson, like every year before, went the JUCO route and brought in Jeremy Harris and Montell McRae. He also added Jayvon Graves and James Reese, two freshmen that are already making an impact in this year’s squad.
Also, look ahead to next season and the Bulls are in amazing position. Hodgson put together the best UB recruiting class in history with a pair of four-star freshman recruits and the one of the best JUCO point guards in the nation.
With each recruiting class getting better than the last, questions begin to rise. Pulling in talent of this level is not common for a mid-major program like Buffalo’s, so how is it that UB is recruiting at such a high level?
Look no further than the Bulls’ recruitment of Jeremy Harris. The small forward was the second best JUCO player in the nation and garnered several offers from major programs. Instead of playing for a top program, he chose to come to Buffalo, and that can be attributed to the relationship-building skills Hodgson possesses.
Any coach recruiting Harris would’ve known that he’s close to his mother, but only Hodgson and Oats visited his mom in North Carolina when Harris was playing at Gulf Coast State in Florida. It’s the little things that shows a recruit they’re cared about beyond basketball.
“[Hodgson’s] an absolute bulldog when it comes down to it,” Oats said. “He’s going to know who is in the kid’s life, which people are the most important [to them], and who we need to go see. It takes some work and you can’t be lazy to figure all this stuff out. He really works hard at it and takes pride in it. He’s a great people person where he can build relationships right away.”
Montell McRae, a 6-10 forward new to UB this year, nails many of the same points Oats had of Hodgson.
“He stays in contact with you and does whatever he can to get you,” McRae explains. “He talks to moms, dads, anybody. He’s just really consistent and full of effort throughout the whole process of recruiting. Most coaches are just looking for a player. I’ve known Coach Hodgson since my AAU days, and when he came to recruit me from JUCO, I felt at home already.”
His effort in getting to know players doesn’t just help recruiting, but it translates to his on-the-court coaching as well.
“Since he’s got that relationship with [the players], he’s got no problem calling them out,” Oats adds. “I’m a little more abrasive and get after guys more. Afterwards he can get in their ear a little bit like, ‘Hey come on, you’ve got to pick it up.’”
Hodgson also attributes his success on the recruiting trail to the team’s growing success on the court.
“Kids want to win. Before Nate and Bobby got here, that wasn’t happening,” Hodgson explains. “Once you reach the NCAA Tournament, that opens a whole new crop of kids that you can speak to. Kids want to play in the Tournament and they want to play on TV. We have everything that Power-5 schools do and people are just now realizing that.”
Regardless, UB’s recruiting is on the uptrend thanks to Hodgson and the program should see even more success on the court because of it. Although he hopes to be a head coach someday, he’s comfortable with where he’s at right now.
“I’m in no rush. I’m in a great spot and Nate’s an easy guy to recruit for. He relates to kids and we play a style of basketball that kids want to play. I love the University at Buffalo and I’m in no rush to do anything except continue to win games here.”
With an attitude like that, Bulls fans can rest assured that the best has yet to come.