As the 25th ranked Buffalo Men’s Basketball team heads into its home game against Dartmouth this Wednesday, take a second or two…heck, take all week, to try and remember where (who?) you were the last time the Bulls were ranked in the Top 25. No? Well, as many of you know, that was a trick question, since the Bulls have never in their entire history been ranked before this week’s Associated Press (i.e. sportswriters) poll came out. For those following along this and last season, it will not be the biggest surprise: The men’s team got 13 votes in their preseason poll (as well as some in the Coaches poll), not enough to be ranked, but proof that even before the upset road victory against (then) #13 West Virginia this otherwise generally unknown program was on the AP voters radar. And that made sense. Buffalo has made the NCAA “March Madness” tournament three of the last four years (the only three years they have been in it) and after losing their first game to much higher seeded opponents and being eliminated immediately in 2015 and 2016 (and not making the 2017 tournament) the Bulls finally broke through in a big way last year by routing 4th seed Arizona in the first round before losing to perennial powerhouse Kentucky in the next round.
So, with a potentially unprecedented year coming up for Bulls followers and many other college basketball fans in Western New York, let’s look at the team’s make up and prospects going forward.
The Bulls are coached by Nate Oats, who was the assistant to the last Buffalo Head Coach Bobby Hurly, the ex-Duke star (and five year NBA vet) who was hired away by Arizona State three years ago after leading Buffalo to its first ever NCAA appearance. Before coming to the Bulls, Oats was a very successful lower division coach, and had a 42-20 record as Bulls assistant coach. He is also considered a very good recruiter, an extremely important part of any resume for a prospective head coach at a Mid-Major school like Buffalo that is new(er) to Division 1 and has a well established and successful local (or, in this case semi-local) rival from a Major conference, as the Bulls do in Syracuse. He is credited with recruiting Justin Moss his first year with Buffalo; Moss went on to win the 2014–15 MAC Player of the year award. Oats won MAC Coach of the Year last year after leading the Bulls to an 8-0 start in conference play and their first outright MAC division title in Bulls history and the conferences post season tournament, which led to that NCAA tournament appearance and stunning first round win over Arizona.
The squad is led by Senior Guard C.J. Massenberg, who scored 43 points in the thrilling overtime victory over West Virginia, though he cooled down in the next game and the team’s overall shooting percentage so far portends a need for balanced team play (they are doubling the assist total of their opponents so far, a great sign), and winning the Turn Over battle to get more possessions than whoever they face, since rebounding (where they have only a slight edge) may be an issue going forward. Right now, the top three scorers are Seniors, which is a good sign in that they should remain steady allowing the younger players to gain crucial experience and confidence as the season continues. And the Defense has done its part so far as well, but will eventually face pressure to remain this solid if the team keeps shooting under 40%.
A Deeper Dive:
After passing their first test this year as a nationally ranked team by beating Southern Illinois to go 3-0 on the season, the Bulls get a week off as reward. The Salukis may not have posed as big a challenge as (then) 14th ranked West Virginia did, but for a team that had never played as a ranked team before, beating So. Ill (as their fans and many bettors call them) on the road was almost as important a milestone as beating the now unranked Mountaineers. Down 27-20 late in the first half and looking every bit like a team caught up in its hype, the Bulls “Beared Down” (sorry, ‘Zona fans) and ended the half on an 11-0 run. A few key three pointers and great defense helped them pull away in the second half for the 62-53 victory. The very balanced but cold shooting attack had their leading scorers top out at 11 points for the game, but a big rebounding and turnover margin kept their opponent from getting back in to it. Next up Dartmouth is definitely a beatable opponent, and the schedule looks very favorable for the undefeated start to continue at least up till the Bulls first national TV appearance on ESPN 2 against those recruiting rivals, 15th ranked Syracuse, in mid-December at the Carrier Dome. If the Bulls are still undefeated by then, that game against the Orangemen will be arguably the biggest regular season game Buffalo will have ever played and could be part of a shift in (or at least balancing of) power between the two schools, which would be a stunning accomplishment. Two days later they play at 24th ranked Marquette on Fox Sports One. If Buffalo comes out of that weekend at 11-0 after having beaten two more ranked teams on the road on national television, a fair possibility if not a probability, the Bulls will find themselves a 13-0 top 15 team entering MAC play (Just think about that for a second). And since they should be the best team in the MAC by a fair bit this year, then…
OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and think we’re going to have an undefeated season. But between what should still be a VERY strong final record and some (possibly all) victories over higher ranked and higher regarded programs along the way, the Bulls will certainly be set up for the highest seed and best chance in the NCAA Tournament ever. Now, because they are from a mid-major conference and they only have a “recent history” of making the tournament (oxymoron aside, and by oxymoron, I don’t mean the head of the selection committee), their overall record and key victories could also salvage their hopes making the NCAA tournament should they lose the MAC tournament and not receive the automatic bid that comes with it.
Way Too Early, Possibly Too Optimistic, Prediction:
Bulls lose no more than four games this year, win the MAC tournament, make March Madness as a 9 seed, win their first two games to make the Sweet Sixteen – going farther than they have before, and as far or further than Syracuse does- and if (BIG “if”) Oats isn’t then lured away to a Major Conference position like Hurley was (not that I’d blame him or blamed Hurly for taking the opportunity), the Bulls solidify themselves for years to come as a Mid-Major powerhouse ending up with as good or better recruiting classes as any local or state rival school going forward (sorry, Colgate, but you’re still my #1 favorite bargain toothpaste; we’ll always have that). Recruiting will be especially important the next two years as Buffalo’s top three scorers so far are Seniors. Bottom line, if it’s a solid season, -as it almost will be for sure, – and Oats stays, I’m very comfortable in my optimism. But even if I’m being a bit too sanguine here, and even if Oats moves on, the future for Buffalo Bulls Men’s Basketball has never looked brighter.
Photo courtesy UB Bulls