Spring check-in: Men’s basketball

Bulls ready to repeat as champions

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Buffalo men’s basketball has never been better, with a third Mid-American Conference Championship in four years, five All-MAC players, MAC coach of the year, MAC sixth man of the year and its first-ever NCAA Tournament win.

“We’re trying to make our ceiling our new floor,” said junior guard CJ Massinburg, after the No. 13 seed Bulls broke brackets across the country, defeating the No. 4 seed Arizona.

With 10 players returning and the highest rated recruiting class in program history, the Bulls are on track to do just that. The little improvements head coach Nate Oats wants his team to make every day is just one of the tools he uses to build the culture of this team. Oats built his team using a “blue collar” mentality.

“The blue collar deal is how hard we play and how gritty we are, and nobody cares who gets the recognition,” Oats said. “If you’re blue collar and out on the construction site, nobody cares who puts this brig in or that one. The building better get built, and you go home with your paycheck at the end of the day. Our deal is that we’re all going to dive on the floor for loose balls. … We don’t care who gets the points. We just need to go out and play together as a team and win.”

The Bulls will be without two starters next season and four players overall. Senior point guard Wes Clark, junior center Ikenna Smart and senior forward Gabe Agrioge will all graduate in May. Clark is projected to be the next Bull to play professionally, the fifth for the program in the past two years. Freshman guard James Reese will transfer and find playing time elsewhere. Reese averaged under eight minutes per game and did not play more than eight minutes in a game after December 16.

Oats has not determined who will replace Clark. Whoever works the hardest and is most committed will get the role, according to Oats. Freshman guard Jayvon Graves, sophomore guard Davonta Jordan, incoming freshman guard Ronaldo Segu or junior college transfer Javion Hamlet have the opportunity to take Clark’s spot.

The Bulls bring in four recruits for next season, small forward and Rochester native Jeenathan Williams; Segu from Orlando; and two JUCO transfers, Hamlet and small forward Tra’Von Fagan. Williams is ranked 83rd in Rivals Top 150 rankings for the class of 2018 and is listed the fourth highest for players committed to a non-Power Five school. Rivals ranks Segu as the 44th best point guard in the country and at one point was 32nd.

“We’re just excited this year,” Massinburg said. “We’ll have a couple new faces and we really expect them to be contributors, but we also expect the people who have been here to step their game up.”

Williams and Fagan will add height to a small Buffalo team. At 6 feet 7 inches and 6 feet 8 inches, respectively, the Bulls will increase the depth at the small forward and power forward positions. The team primarily ran a three guard lineup last season, with 6-foot-3-inch Massinburg playing the traditional small forward position.

“We’ll figure it out,” Oats said. “I love our options, but I have no idea until we get the entire team here in the summer and the fall. We’re going to figure it out, that’s the good thing about the way we play. I’m not married to a system that has to have two bigs or one point guard, two wings and two forwards. We adapt to who we have and we’re pretty good at doing that.”

The Bulls will have five seniors for next season: Massinburg, guard Dontay Caruthers, forward Montell McRae, forward Jeremy Harris and forward Nick Perkins. Massinburg and Perkins were first team All-MAC last season, Harris made the second team and Caruthers is a former MAC defensive player of the year. Massinburg and Perkins are the only two players to play their full careers with Oats as the head coach.

“That’s big,” Massinburg said. “Before I came here, I talked to a couple of seniors and one of the hardest things was dealing with coaching changes and how they will fit in. I’m glad Oats stayed for all four years, and I was able to start and finish this journey with him.”

Perkins, now a two-time MAC sixth man of the year, is most likely going to start at center. Perkins was a de-facto starter this season, averaging 27 minutes per game off the bench. The forward started 10 games for the Bulls this past season, averaging over 16 points per game in that span.

“Hopefully, I start my senior year,” Perkins said. “If not, I’ll come off the bench again. Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready.”

With Oats signing a five-year contract extension this past spring, Buffalo basketball is primed to be the next mid-major powerhouse. A “snowball effect” Oats calls it, by winning more games and more championships each year leads to better recruits and better players.

“That snowball is rolling really fast and really hard in the right direction right now,” Oats said. “We got to capitalize on it.”

Nathaniel Mendelson is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrum.com