UB Bulls to play West Virginia in NCAA tournament
Buffalo will be No. 12 seed in first-ever national tournament appearance
The men’s basketball team knew it would make school history and receive its first NCAA Tournament bid as it watched the selection show Sunday. But Buffalo didn't know its seed or where it would play.
Now, Buffalo knows it will be making its first appearance at ‘the big dance’ in the same state it won a MAC title Saturday night. Buffalo received an automatic bid by defeating Central Michigan 89-84 in the Mid-American Conference Championship game in Cleveland, Ohio. Now, the team is headed to Columbus.
The Bulls (23-9, 14-6 MAC) will play No. 18 West Virginia (23-9, 11-7 Big 12) Friday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio in what will be the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Buffalo is a No. 12 seed in the Midwest Regional, while the Mountaineers are the No. 5 seed. The Bulls held a special Selection Sunday viewing party at Santora’s Pizza Pub and Grill in Williamsville.
Athletic Director Danny White said having a nationally known athletics department and making the NCAA tournament can shine “a pretty big spotlight” on the UB campus.
“There’s not too many bigger platforms in sport than the NCAA Tournament,” White said. “Part of the job in athletics is to serve as marketing arm and tell that story on a national stage. This is a big opportunity to do that.”
Head coach Bobby Hurley said the last eight games have prepared the Bulls for the national tournament. Buffalo was 6-6 in the MAC before a six-game winning streak to close the regular season and two wins in the conference tournament.
“The game won’t be too big for them,” Hurley said. “We’ve had a lot of big games, especially the last eight games we won. We’ve been playing for our season now for a month.”
Hurley said he “felt some pressure” to get Buffalo it’s first NCAA tournament bid, and that he didn’t want the players to see it. He said he just wanted to “break through.”
“So many alum and different people came up to me after the game and shared their excitement and that meant a lot to me,” Hurley said. “I wanted it to happen for our players so badly and for our community and now it’s here and we have a program that’s stocked with young players. Now they’ve tasted what it’s like and I think it’s something we can build on.”
Senior forward Will Regan attributed the success of this year’s team to past Buffalo teams that have come up short of making the national tournament. The Bulls lost 80-79 in overtime to Ohio in the 2005 MAC Championship game
“Everyone remembers the 2005 team. They were up big, they were right there and it slipped away,” Regan said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without what they did. The hard work they had to put in and get the program to where it is now.”
Regan was taken out of the starting lineup in the middle of the season and has played a reduced role than in past seasons. But he scored 11 points Saturday night in Buffalo’s championship win over Central Michigan and made crucial free throws in the final seconds to seal the victory.
“I think it goes without saying this season has been a rollercoaster of emotion for me,” Regan said. “On my birthday I didn’t even score a basket and that’s not easy to take in. But the team stayed with me, the coaches stayed with me and my parents were my backbone. To finally get the groove back and be in a position where I’m a vital part of this team, it’s a dream come true. I didn’t see this two months ago.”
Regan, a Buffalo native who transferred to UB after a freshman season at Virginia, said he appreciated what the conference title and NCAA tournament bid meant for the City of Buffalo as he took the game-clinching free throws.
“I knew this was a moment. I was able to take it in a little bit at the free throw line and realize a Buffalo kid at the free throw line to get Buffalo to the tournament is pretty awesome,” Regan said.
UB Athletics tried various marketing campaigns through the season to increase both student and community attendance at games. White said he wants to make Alumni Arena a “nationally known tough place to play” and a “tough place to get a ticket.” He said that having a “vibrant” student section attracts Buffalo community members to games.
“We just got to keep working on becoming more relevant in the community,” White said. “But having a vibrant student section and student body, helps us so much as we sell to the community. Our alumni and fans, they want to come and be a part of it and the students bring that energy.”
White praised Hurley’s leadership in guiding Buffalo to its first ever MAC championship and NCAA tournament appearance in his second season on the job. White hired Hurley in 2013 after firing 14-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon. White said that Buffalo is “diligent” in how it makes coaching decisions, and that none of those decisions are completely his own. He said no coaching change is easy because “there’s people involved.”
“We recognized that a tough coaching decision needed to be made and I said since the day I got here, ‘If I know what we have to do, even if it’s a hard decision, I’m not going to run from it,’” White said. “We’ll always make the decision we have to if it’s right and we’ll continue to operate that way.”
West Virginia is the third highest opponent Buffalo has played this season. The Bulls faced No. 1 Kentucky and No. 6 Wisconsin in the nonconference schedule and played a close first half against both of them.
Regan said those games have given Buffalo confidence it can pull off an upset against the Mountaineers on Friday.
“You play against two of the top teams in the country. You hold your own,” Regan said. “We definitely slipped up near the end of those games, but to have that experience going into these games is priceless and it will really help us.”
Friday’s tipoff in Nationwide Arena in Columbus is set for 2:10 p.m.