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Reigning MAC champ UB Bulls are underdogs

Men’s squad looks to bring home a second championship in as many years

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The men’s basketball team, the reigning Mid-American Conference Champions, isn’t even nationally ranked in the top-100.

That’s according to CBS Sports. And even Buffalo’s own conference’s media has picked it to finish no better than fourth – in the MAC East.

But it’s nothing of concern for first-year head coach Nate Oats. He said he embraces adversity and the underdog persona. His plan for success is simple: to bring together inexperienced players that are motivated to win a second championship in as many years despite what skeptics have to say.

“I don’t know how anybody ranks anyone before they play a game – it’s purely subjective,” Oats said. “Whoever ranked us 126th is assuming that some of these guys aren’t as good as what I anticipate them being … We have a good schedule … So we’ll get our chance to get our RPI back up like it was last year if we take care of our business.”

It’s no secret that Buffalo is in the midst of a rebuilding year when it should have been going into the season as favorites. After contract extension talks fell apart, former head coach Bobby Hurley left Buffalo to coach Arizona State and brought star point guard Shannon Evans and some other high-profile recruits with him. Reigning MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss was expelled from UB for a dorm theft this summer. Impact seniors Xavier Ford and Will Regan graduated.

But Buffalo wasn’t supposed to win the conference last season either after losing three starters. The team still defeated Central Michigan 89-84 in the MAC Tournament to advance to the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament.

Nine of Buffalo’s 15 players have never logged a minute for the Bulls. Most are freshmen or junior college transfers. But if past accolades and Buffalo’s exhibition win over Daemen is any indication, the recruiting class may be ready to contribute immediately.

Oats is excited about junior college transfer Willie Conner, who is expected to crack Buffalo’s starting five. Conner, a junior wing, averaged 18.0 points and 5.0 rebounds for Odessa Community College.

He considers himself Buffalo’s organizer. He knows the team is chock-full of shooters, but he wants to be the player to slow the game down and have everyone realize defense is just as important as scoring.

But that mindset doesn’t stop him from shooting the deep ball.

“Willie is a big-time shooter and he is exactly what we need to complement our roster,” Oats said. “His ability to space the floor and make shots will really allow us to open up our offense. He guards well, he can knock down threes – that’s kind of his deal. We need him to make shots for us.”

Freshmen guard CJ Massinburg averaged 22.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and won Offensive MVP of his district during his senior year of high school. He also scored a game-high 25 points against Daemen. He’s expected to be a backup but fill into the backcourt.

“He has a real chance to be a big contributor for us over the next four years,” Oats said. “He is a big guard with a huge upside that can play multiple positions. He has won everywhere he has been, playing on extremely successful high school and AAU teams and we are thrilled that he will bring that winning attitude to Buffalo.”

In their first exhibition game, Conner and Massinburg nearly accumulated for half of Buffalo’s point amassing 43 points out of the Bulls’ 87, on 16-of-25 shooting which included Massinburg exploding from 3-point range, going 5-of-6.

Sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden headlines the list of the returning players and is expected to carry a heavy load this season as one of the remaining stars from last year’s team. Bearden, who will replace Evans as Buffalo’s No. 1 point guard, averaged 8.3 points and 4.4 assists per game as a freshman and has been committed to increase his weight lifting.

As of October, Bearden has put on at least eight pounds of muscle since last season.

“I feel like I have a much bigger role this year,” Bearden said confidently. “During the summer, I went back home and I did nothing but lift … I really worked on my strength and when I got back to school I kept lifting heavy. I think it’ll make me a little bit faster, more athletic, and allow me to finish around the basket more.”

Buffalo still carries a fast-paced persona, but the forwards are more traditional. Freshman forward Ikenna Smart will assume the center position. Smart, who stands 6-foot-10, will be Buffalo’s tallest player and be a primary rim defender. But his game is still developing as well. He learned under former forwards Xavier Ford and Will Regan while sitting out last season, which prompted him to work on his offensive and post game.

“I’ve been working a lot on my jump hook and a lot on my post move,” Smart said. “My post move has gotten so much better and my read, so I know how defenses play me. I worked a little bit on my strength.”

Last season under Hurley, the Bulls ran a 3-guard set that included an 8-man rotation. The rotation was rarely altered throughout the season. But the addition of new talent could prompt Oats to give players more playing time.

But the players have to earn it first.

“I hope I can, but I’m not playing any more that earn it,” Oats said about the rotation. “I’m not going to play 10 [players] just to play 10 [players]. If there’s only seven or eight players that earn minutes, then that’s all I’m going to play.”

Buffalo’s season officially begins on Friday as the team hosts Pitt-Bradford at Alumni Arena. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m.

Romulo Romero is a sports staff writer. Sports desk can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com.


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