​Savor the moment, Buffalo, but the future remains a question

Bulls’ first MAC Championship should be a beginning, not an endpoint

Well, this what they’ve been talking about, isn’t it?

I’ve heard just about every athlete on just about every team at this university say his or her goal is to win a Mid-American Conference championship during the past two-plus years. The basketball teams have a picture of a MAC Tournament trophy on a mural outside their locker rooms, despite not having one on their resumes. UB Athletics sent out an email last Friday night calling the men’s team the MAC Champions after it won a MAC East title and a share of the MAC regular season championship.

I had only ever seen the women’s soccer team back it all up. But it’s football and basketball championships that get an athletic program on the map. (Sorry, girls. I’ve written about how awesome I think you are.)

But now that picture of the MAC trophy outside the Alumni Arena locker rooms looks just right and that email can be sent out. The Buffalo Bulls men’s basketball team is MAC champions.

The Bulls defeated a scrappy Akron squad in the semifinal and a super talented Central Michigan team Saturday night in the championship game despite a 6-6 conference start and hobbled MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss. They’re going to their first-ever NCAA Tournament next week with a second-year head coach one year after graduating three starters.

This is what the athletic department has been talking about for the past few years with making Buffalo ‘big-time’ – and hey, to its credit, getting to the big dance is pretty ‘big-time.’

Full disclosure: I wasn’t able to watch the most important game in the history of Buffalo basketball. I have the terrible Amtrak train Wi-Fi I was using on my way back from a college journalism conference to blame for that. But I did have the second best thing I could by never letting my eyes leave my Twitter feed for the entire length of the game.

I had no vested interest if the Bulls came out on top or not Saturday night. I keep any amount of school pride out of it. But as the final minute of the game played out and the tweets slowly started to acknowledge that a Buffalo victory was imminent, I couldn’t help but feel good for some of the players and appreciative of what this win means for the City of Buffalo.

I thought about Xavier Ford winning tournament MVP after failing to live up the expectations his first three seasons and going through a rough childhood.

I thought about Moss getting a ring to go along with his MAC Player of the Year Award after being told just a few years ago he’d never play basketball again because of a heart condition.

I thought about how there couldn’t be a better way for Will Regan to go out than in the NCAA Tournament after winning a MAC championship. He’s a Buffalo native who took on a reduced role this season but did what was asked of him.

Admittedly, this team has went 42-19 in my two seasons covering it – but I can appreciate this isn’t the norm. Saturday night’s MAC championship and this entire season has been huge for this program and the Western New York community.

Buffalo will be playing against one of the best teams in the country on national television on the biggest stage that it can reach, and I’m sure some will even consider them a Cinderella candidate. There was a different atmosphere in Alumni Arena this season. The community and the students finally started to embrace this team and take ownership of it, with the help of some marketing. It’s a fair argument this was the most important season in the history of the program.

And that seemed to be the plan.

The moment Buffalo Athletic Director Danny White brought Bobby Hurley to Buffalo in 2013, filling seats and making NCAA Tournaments became not only the goal but also the expectation. Hurley’s name alone allows him to bring in recruits that Buffalo would not have gotten in the past. And he’s becoming a better coach as he goes along, too.

So OK, the elephant in the room has to be addressed. It’s the question I’m sure came across the mind of just about anyone who closely follows Buffalo basketball.

Can White’s decision to terminate 14-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon and replace him with Hurley officially be called the right move?

It’s easy to sit here now as Hurley cuts down the nets in year two and say firing Witherspoon – who never won a MAC title – was the absolute right call. 

I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

Witherspoon grinded for 14 years and brought this team from the very bottom of D-I to a respectable level. Buffalo is in no position for a NCAA Tournament bid right now without that. Witherspoon deserves a small amount of credit for that championship Saturday night.

That’s not to take anything away from the credit Hurley is due. I said before this season that this team is officially his now. He recruited all but three players on the roster. He turned a junior college player in Moss into the MAC Player of the Year. And now Hurley’s won a conference championship in his second year as a head coach not just at Buffalo – but anywhere.

This is no small feat. And unfortunately for Buffalo, it could lead to a ticket out the door.

It’s been no secret that if Hurley – with his name recognition and two NCAA championships as a star Duke player – has success at Buffalo, he’s destined for greener pastures. It is what it is.

It’s the risk involved when an up-and-comer like Hurley has success a school like UB. Hurley may have accelerated the process by winning in a season that was thought to be a rebuilding one.

If he gets a job offer from a bigger program and walks away after Buffalo exits the NCAA Tournament, I don’t think you can blame the guy for taking a better opportunity. He would have given this program two highly successful seasons and a championship. It would be hard for me to criticize White’s calculated move to get Hurley because of one fact: The team had no championships before Hurley and now it has one after him.

But there would be major questions about the program going forward if Hurley leaves right now. It would feel like the rug was being ripped out from under the Western New York basketball community right when they’re on the peak of doing something special. Would the seats of Alumni Arena still fill up next season? Could White find another unproven, big name to come in and continue the excitement?

I’m not so sure.

That all being said, Hurley signed an extension through the 2018-19 season in September, and there have been rumors this week that UB is working on giving him another one. My gut told me all season long that if this team wins the tournament, he’s gone. I’m not willing to completely shut the door on his return though.

I think Hurley recognizes this team is young and he could do what he did Saturday night a few more times in the next couple years. Moss has another season of eligibility. Shannon Evans has another two. Heck, Lamonte Bearden has another three.

He could do something special here. And those offers will more than likely still be there down the line.

But the fans, this team and this athletic department should savor this moment. Enjoy it. This is the biggest stage UB Athletics has ever been on. But it doesn’t have to be the peak. I think it would be a shame if this were the last time this kind of excitement surrounds Bulls basketball for awhile.

Tom Dinki is the senior news editor. He can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com