Bulls' Xavier Ford leads team to NCAA after slow start to career
Ford finally meeting expectations of top recruit
Xavier Ford brought expectations with him to Buffalo.
The senior forward and former top-level recruit admits he’s “probably one of the most decorated guys to be recruited” to UB. He was the first Buffalo recruit to make the PARADE All-American team and averaged 27.4 points a game during his senior year of high school.
But he also admits he didn’t hold up to that standard.
Ford failed to consistently crack the Bulls’ starting lineup and make a major impact in his first three seasons with the men’s basketball team. He said people questioned him.
Ford kept confident though. He said he knew that if he got an opportunity, he was “going to run with it.”
And Ford did get an opportunity this season, and he’s running with it through the Bulls’ Mid-American Conference championship and NCAA Tournament run.
Ford, who has had a career year in his senior season, was named MAC Tournament MVP after the Bulls’ MAC Championship win over Central Michigan Saturday. He figures to be a major factor in determining if Buffalo wins its first-ever NCAA tournament game Friday against West Virginia in Columbus, Ohio. The tournament will have special meaning for Ford, who overcame a rough childhood and three disappointing seasons to be a leader for the Bulls in their first time at the ‘big dance.’
“I had a lot of doubters throughout the four years and a lot of people who were talking about how good and how bad I’ve been,” Ford said. “To go out on top, hopefully that put all doubt to shame.”
Ford was recruited to Buffalo by former head coach Reggie Witherspoon, but he never seemed to fit into the offense. Head coach Bobby Hurley instantly liked Ford’s skill set and athletic ability when he took the job in 2013.
“It was something I thought I could use and work with,” Hurley said. “I think the style of play we play with suits him pretty well.”
Ford started 17 games last year in Hurley’s first season, but he rarely played starter minutes and only averaged four points a game. He’s averaging more than double that (9.5) this season in Hurley’s fast-paced offense.
Ford’s breakout game came Jan. 30 in a nationally televised ‘blackout’ game against Kent State. Ford scored a career-high 25 points and added nine rebounds. Buffalo won 80-55. He scored 17 and 18 points, respectively, in the MAC Tournament to win MVP honors and give the Bulls their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
“I think he’s in a system that he likes playing in. It’s a good style for him,” Hurley said. “He knows people are supporting him and people think he’s good. He’s playing with confidence because he believes in his game.”
Ford said he never lost confidence throughout the seasons he struggled and failed to meet the high expectations that come with being a top recruit. He said he knew, despite perception, that this would be successful season for himself and the Bulls. Buffalo was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East in the preseason polls.
“Confidence is a huge thing for me,” Ford said. “I worked hard on my game and I got a lot of skills. I knew this was going to be a good year for not only myself but for my teammates.”
Hurley said there hasn’t been anyone in his two years at Buffalo who has "put more time into his game behind the scenes” than Ford.
“He made the commitment and he’s sacrificed and I’m happy he’s having the success he’s having,” Hurley said.
Ford also had to sacrifice growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He worked a paper route with his grandfather from ages 12 to 17 to help buy groceries and pay the rent.
He narrowly avoided gang life and became a star high school recruit with the help of his grandparents.
“I liked Xavier when I first met him and got to know more about his history and his background and what he’d been through in his life to understand who he was,” Hurley said.
After Buffalo’s MAC Championship win Saturday, Ford was emotional as he thought about the adversity he and the Bulls went through. He shared the moment with teammate and fellow senior, Will Regan.
“Me and Will went through the trenches,” Ford said. “It was a weight lifted off our shoulders. We’ve been through thick and thin, the highs and lows. For Will and I to win a championship and go out and close, it was an amazing thing.”
Ford and Regan are Buffalo’s most tenured players; both joined the Bulls in 2011. Ford was a freshman, while Regan was a transfer from Virginia. They are the only two players on the roster besides junior guard Jarryn Skeete to have played under the coaching change from Witherspoon to Hurley.
Ford replaced Regan in the starting lineup in the middle of the season. Ford said Regan’s numbers don’t show how much he adds to the team and that Regan “made great sacrifices for the team and that shows the kind of leader and the kind of person he is.”
Regan made crucial free throws in the final seconds of Buffalo’s championship victory over Central Michigan on Saturday to seal the victory.
“I was just so happy for Will because he hit the two free throws to ice the game,” Ford said. “He’s a local guy and nobody deserves it more than Will Regan.”
Ford said it’s been a “relief” to put everything together in his senior season, but that he still has a long way to go. Hurley said Ford is motivated for the NCAA Tournament Friday.
“This is his last chance,” Hurley said. “He’s a senior and he wants to have the best possible year and he’s really cut it loose.”
Tom Dinki is the senior news editor and can be reach at email@example.com