After providing one of the more insane moments of March Madness last year, BUFFALO is playing even better. But it's far from the only mid-major that has a roster ready to ravage brackets
NATE OATS is a numbers guy. Before he was hired as an assistant at Buffalo in 2013, he spent 11 years teaching algebra, geometry and statistics while coaching basketball at Romulus (Mich.) High. Now in his fourth season as the Bulls' coach, Oats applies this background after every game, when he shows his players how they stack up in various efficiency metrics. Per-possession performance matters to Oats, who is cognizant of how kenpom.com ratings and NET rankings influence the NCAA tournament selection committee's seeding process. But when Oats is hollering about defensive lapses in the waning minutes of a 15-point victory, he couldn't care less about esoteric calculations. "If we think we're better than a team, just winning the game isn't enough," the 44-year-old Oats says. "You need to try to dominate your opponent. It's not only an efficiency deal. It's a mind-set."
Buffalo is answering Oats's call. The 22--3 Bulls have had a spot in the AP Top 25 poll since this season's second week by being both prudent (they're 25th among 353 Division I teams in offensive turnover rate) and aggressive (their average offensive possession time is the fourth-fastest nationally), winning by an average of 13.2 points. Meanwhile Buffalo's opponents, stifled by extended defensive pressure, find their own possessions becoming drawn-out, enervating struggles, as evidenced by their ranking in pace (a collective 298th) and a paltry assist rate (39.2% of their field goals, third lowest nationally). All of which is to say that the Bulls are the best true mid-major this March will offer, regardless of whether you can decipher the relative value of their 53.4% effective field goal percentage. "I didn't even know that kind of stuff existed," says senior shooting guard CJ Massinburg, who also notes he got an A in his stats course last year. "It seems like a headache to me. [Oats] breaks it down for us."
In last year's bracket the numbers did not appear to favor the Bulls. They were a No. 13 seed ranked 71st in adjusted efficiency margin, facing fourth-seeded Arizona, which ranked 21st in the same category and featured a future No. 1 NBA draft pick (7'1" forward Deandre Ayton) and an All-Pac-12 guard now averaging 9.9 points for the Knicks (Allonzo Trier). Undaunted, Buffalo walloped the Wildcats by 21 points. The Bulls' tournament run would end two days later, with a 95--75 loss to Kentucky, but not before they changed perceptions about a program that had been glad to simply make the field in 2015 and '16.
"We said last year that we've been there and done that when it comes to getting to the tournament—it's time to win some games," says Oats, whose team has seven of its top eight rotation players from last season. "This year, we talk about getting past that first weekend."
Until they earned a berth four years ago, the Bulls had failed to reach the tournament since moving to D-I in 1991--92. That was two seasons before Oats began his playing career at Division III Maranatha Baptist in his home state of Wisconsin, where he majored in math education; he drew on both experiences upon graduation, teaching high school classes while serving as an assistant at his alma mater and at Wisconsin-Whitewater.
After five years of such double duty, he landed the job at Romulus, which he led to seven conference titles, a state Class A championship and a 222--52 record. He thought about pursuing a position as a Division I assistant and even interviewed a few times. But as he became better acquainted with the college coaches who recruited his players at Romulus, jobs at that level lost some appeal: too itinerant, too insecure. He thought of one of his idols, Bob Hurley, who spurned college job offers to stay for more than four decades at St. Anthony High in Jersey City, accruing so much success that he earned enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Hurley's two sons caused Oats to rethink. He got to know Danny Hurley while Hurley was coaching at Wagner and Rhode Island and recruiting E.C. Matthews, Romulus's star guard. After Danny's older brother, Bobby, was hired to coach Buffalo in March 2013, Danny connected him with Oats, who, largely out of respect for the Hurley family, decided to make the jump. Two years later Bobby left to take over at Arizona State. Within 48 hours Oats, only two years removed from running a high school program, was promoted to replace him.
The Bulls' free-flowing style under Oats was familiar to anyone who had seen his teams at Romulus, where he emphasized skill development in practice and loosened the reins during games. "My thought was, if I'm gonna spend all this time in the gym, it doesn't really make any sense to turn them into robots on the floor," says Oats. "Guys wanna be in the gym even more if they know they have the freedom to use what they're working on."
That approach has worked at Buffalo too, where Oats's players often suggest matchup adjustments during huddles. "There's some coaches where it's kind of a dictatorship, their way or the highway," says Massinburg, the team's leading scorer at 18.3 points per game. "He's not like that. He listens to us."
Massinburg's own relationship with Oats began in an unusual way. When Oats was promoted in April 2015, he had five scholarships to fill and few options. A friend at another school tipped him off to Massinburg, who had just finished his high school career in Dallas and was planning to enroll at a junior college in the fall. Oats invited him to campus for a workout, then offered him a scholarship without ever having seen him play five-on-five. Plans to redshirt Massinburg as a freshman were scrapped in time for him to score 17 at Duke in just his eighth game. It was just a glimpse of his flair for the big stage: Massinburg has averaged 16.0 points and shot 47.1% from beyond the arc in three NCAA tournament games, and this season he scored a career-high 43 in an opening-week win at West Virginia.
That upset in Morgantown earned Buffalo its first appearance in the Top 25; the team climbed as high as No. 14 last month. With 6'7" senior wing Jeremy Harris (13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) beside Massinburg and 6'8" stretch forward Nick Perkins (13.8 points, 7.7 boards) coming off the bench, the Bulls have become a local sensation, selling out 6,783-seat Alumni Arena for games even when students were on break. In December they won by 12 at Syracuse to unofficially stake their claim as the basketball alphas of Western New York. Harris, the second-ranked juco in the country in 2017, chose Buffalo over Texas Tech, and 6'5" freshman reserve Jeenathan Williams, a four-star forward from Rochester, N.Y., declined offers from Marquette, Minnesota and even the Orange.
Such recruiting victories are strong signs of growth for a program that only a few years ago took pride in slim halftime leads over Kentucky and Wisconsin. The blowout of Arizona last March, Massinburg says, offered "a hint of how good we could be." Oats has been open about his aspirations to make Buffalo more than a mid-major, à la Gonzaga and Butler. "I don't want anybody to get the wrong idea, but they did have to start somewhere," Oats says. "We've got this thing going in the right direction."
134 Victories in eight seasons by Miller, the winningest coach in Spartans history at 36.