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UB basketball begins quest for conference three-peat

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The formula for success in mid-major college basketball is simple: recruit well, keep as much year-to-year fluidity as possible and create a winning atmosphere with a good coach.

Two years ago, Buffalo was primed to create a Mid-American Conference dynasty following this blueprint. Bobby Hurley – college basketball royalty – coached the team off their first MAC Championship in program history. UB was going to out-recruit the rest of the conference for years to come behind Hurley’s reputation.

Along with Hurley, Buffalo had freshman point guard Lamonte Bearden, who appeared ready to take the reins and run the show for his entire four-year career. They were also returning Shannon Evans and Justin Moss, two of the best players in the conference.

But when Hurley left the program for Arizona State after the 2014-15 season, it all fell apart.

Evans transferred. Moss was later expelled. Buffalo had seemingly missed their chance and was back to the drawing board.

Buffalo was picked to finish fourth in the MAC Eastern Division for the 2015-16 year in the preseason coaches’ poll. They seemed to be on their way to becoming a decent program in the MAC, but nothing more.

Then, new head coach Nate Oats hit the reset button.

Oats had an outstanding haul of junior college transfers, freshmen and the return of Bearden. Buffalo managed to win the MAC for the second straight year with a team that was almost the complete opposite of the one that preceded it.

UB was an early favorite this season because they could do what no team has ever done: win a MAC Championship three years in a row. But just when Buffalo was done with drama, Bearden announced his decision to transfer last July.

UB was pegged to finish third in the MAC East this year and only received two of 36 votes to win the conference.

With Bearden gone, there is not a single player on Buffalo’s roster who played on both championship teams. The conference three-peat Buffalo is after this year feels wholly singular. Oats couldn’t think of another successful program that has endured what Buffalo has the past three years.

“I don’t even have anybody in my head,” Oats said. “If you look at mid-majors, it’s usually not. You’ve got one or two really good players that you kind of ride through that deal and we haven’t had that.”

Even though Buffalo (1-1) will return nine players and three starters from last year’s team, most of them will be asked to do a little something different without Bearden around.

At the top of the list is senior forward Blake Hamilton. Oats said he will need Hamilton to be a “first team all-conference” type of player this year. Hamilton will be free of any training wheels this season and will be asked to play point guard offensively for stretches, even in the half court.

Hamilton knows he will have to be more assertive and score more than he did last year. He thinks Buffalo will get every MAC team’s best shot since they’re the back-to-back champs, but he does feel the Bulls are being underestimated.

“We had to prove people wrong last year and if that’s what we’ve got to do this year, that’s what you’re gonna have yourself,” Hamilton said.

Senior wing Willie Conner is one of the most vocal players on the team. He is hoping to mold the younger players into more physical, high-effort defense.

“We got a lot of young guys who I’m trying to get into the idea that you gotta play defense in order for us to win,” Conner said.

Oats is looking for Conner to be the “glue guy” who holds it all together on both sides of the floor with his three-point shooting and rugged defense. Conner can guard multiple positions – something that will allow him to play big minutes.

Oats feels he has several great athletes who will be able to guard multiple positions and make the team more versatile defensively.

CJ Massinburg, an under recruited sophomore guard from Texas, represents the present and future of UB Basketball. He will be asked to do a lot more in Oats’ offense this season, whether he winds up as the shooting guard or main point guard by season’s end.

“In high school, guys doubted if I could play the point guard position and now’s the time I can show them that I could,” Massinburg said.

After playing second fiddle to Bearden last year, Massinburg is the star of the show this year in the backcourt. Oats likes him better as the off guard, but he will play him at both guard spots once he returns from an illness. His development as a sophomore will go a long way in determining UB’s ultimate ceiling.

“If he can be an elite level guard, it’s gonna give us a great chance,” Oats said.

Oats believes sophomore forward Nick Perkins will be a major X-factor for the Bulls this year. He is expecting Perkins to take a major step from last year and the team will need him to give Buffalo the scoring presence from inside that they lacked for much of last season. Perkins will play primarily at the four this year, but without Bearden, Oats is experimenting with the idea of playing Perkins at center to get more shooters on the floor for stretches.

“If we got CJ at the one, say you play CJ, Willie, Blake and Perk, like all four of those guys shoot it really well,” Oats said. “Or even Nikola [Rakicevic] in there and then you could put Perk at the five and then you got 1-5 that can all shoot it really well.”

Freshman forward Quate McKinzie is a defensive specialist who should be able to fill many roles on the defensive side of the floor. With his 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism, McKinzie should be able to give opposing forwards of all sizes fits.

“He’s long and athletic and can really guard,” Oats said. “He runs the floor well, we want to turn him into more of a three, he was the biggest kid on his team in high school he was more of a four, maybe even a five in high school... and he’s just not as comfortable on the perimeter yet as we’d like but we gotta find him some minutes on the floor.”

Assistant coach Bryan Hodgson joked that sophomore transfer guard Dontay Caruthers and freshman point guard Davonta Jordan, “could be twins.” Both are high-energy, athletic players who aren’t afraid to do the dirty work.

Jordan in particular will be asked to do a lot for Buffalo this season. He is the most natural point guard on the roster and as the season goes on, Oats hopes he can take the reins at point and push some of his teammates into similar roles they played last season.

“[Jordan] doesn’t have the seasoned experience that [Bearden] had,” Oats said. “But I think he’s a little stronger, might be more athletic.”

Oats admits that as of right now, his starting lineup is “in flux,” and likely will remain that way for a while.

He is still toying with combinations of guys to play together. While many are wondering whether Buffalo will emerge from the competitive MAC at all, Oats is hoping that if they do, they can win a few games.

“It’s great to get to the NCAA Tournament but we’ve been there twice now, what would it be like to get to the second round? Or third round?” Oats said. “I think we’ve got some talented kids if we gel right and really buy into the right things, I think we’re capable of doing that.”

If Buffalo can live up to Oats’ lofty ambitions, the reputation of the program will raise. For the last few years, turmoil has been around every corner for Buffalo. Yet, the machine keeps moving forward.

With Oats at the helm, Buffalo is hoping they can still become what they seemed destined for two years ago – a mid-major powerhouse built to last.

“You know what, we talk about it, Gonzaga, Wichita State, some of these different teams that really would be in what you call a mid-major conference, but nobody thinks of them as mid-majors,” Oats said. “We’ve got a ways to go to get to that level, but yeah that’s where we’d eventually in the future try to get to.”

A third straight NCAA Tournament appearance would go a long way.

Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at michael.akelson@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeakelson.


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