UB men’s basketball tries to climb to the ‘big time’

Buffalo gains national exposure on way to first-ever NCAA tournament


Despite playing in a Mid-Major conference and having a small amount of success throughout its Division I history, UB Athletics has said it’s building “America’s next big-time college athletics brand” for the past two years under the New York Bulls Initiative or #NYBI.

After the men’s basketball team’s historic season, maybe it’s finally on its way to doing it.

The Bulls (24-10, 12-6 Mid-American Conference) wrapped up the best season in program history last week that included the team’s first-ever MAC Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. Buffalo defeated Central Michigan 89-84 in the conference championship game on March 14 and fell 68-62 to West Virginia in the round of 64 as a No. 12 seed on March 20.

“At the mid-major level, it’s very hard to get to the tournament,” said head coach Bobby Hurley. “You almost have to win your conference championship to go. I appreciated how hard it would be and it was a hard journey. It wasn’t completely smooth this year but there’s a testament to these guys will to win. You hope you’re doing all the right things in a program to win a championship and they did that this year.”

The NCAA Tournament gives teams like Buffalo and other Mid-Major programs national exposure it would not normally receive. According to White, the team was mentioned more than 9,300 times on social media since Buffalo made the tournament, which equates to roughly $25.7 million in ad revenue.

Buffalo was featured on national media such as ESPN, and was the “popular” upset pick at the beginning of the week, culminating with a selection nod from President Barack Obama. Hurley said that entrance to the tournament was “tremendous exposure” and was “the best possible platform for us.”

Senior forward Xavier Ford is convinced the national attention will be exponentially beneficial to the team in terms of recruiting.

“I’m just happy for our guys,” Ford said. “Everyone now knows who Buffalo is.”

Athletics has been trying to increase Buffalo’s exposure since White arrived in 2012 and implemented NYBI, which has rebranded UB as New York’s flagship university for college athletics. The outline of New York State is featured on the both the basketball court and the football field, and Buffalo’s jerseys and logo predominantly features the word “New York” rather than “Buffalo.”

Last year, UB Athletics put $1.8 million into the men’s team – second to football, which Athletics invested nearly $6.7 million into – and more than $1.2 million into the women’s basketball team. In marketing across all sports, Athletics poured in more than $31 million to promote the Bulls, which included concert tailgate series and giveaways.

Athletics made a large push to increase attendance at basketball home games this year. The team introduced a tuition giveaway as well as clothing and other items. The result: two of the highest attendances in the history of Alumni Arena, one of which was the highest in a decade.

Roughly 1,900 of the 6,607 fans who attended Bulls’ MAC East clinching game against Bowling Green on March 6 were students.

The student sections of home games were perhaps more filled than they have ever been, and the students followed the Bulls on the road to Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio for the MAC Tournament and NCAA Tournament respectively.

There were roughly 55 True Blue members who attended the Bulls' away game against Akron on Feb. 7. More than 200 students traveled down to Cleveland to watch the Bulls play for the MAC Championship. According to junior communications major and True Blue member Shane Patterson, the vast majority of the 5,266 fans that attended donned the Buffalo blue and white.

It at least seems Buffalo’s “March Madness” is beginning to back up the marketing UB Athletics has been putting out.

But the national exposure and success didn’t come easy.

The preseason polls picked the Bulls to place fourth in the MAC in the beginning of the season after graduating three starting seniors from last year including UB all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea.

Three players that were supposed to be on the team were taken off the active roster. Junior forward Jamir Hanner was removed from the team for undisclosed reasons right before the season began, and freshman guard Mory Diane was suspended for the season due to academic ineligibility after appearing in four games. Sophomore guard Deyshonee Much left the team for unknown reasons about a month before the season.

When Hurley and his staff saw the team workout for the first time, he said they knew the team was talented, but were unsure of how it would translate to the court.

Their question was answered in mid-November when Buffalo traveled to Lexington, Kentucky.

The Bulls played No. 1 Kentucky, which is still undefeated and currently a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 16 in the second game of the season. Although Buffalo was defeated 71-52, the Bulls were one of a few teams to hold a halftime lead against the Wildcats.

“The Kentucky game was memorable … For our players to step up to that challenge and play in that environment and that crowd, it was a wake up call about how good this team could be,” Hurley said. “They played fearlessly. I think we played that way both ends of the floor.”

The team continued its “fearless” start to the season, going 9-3 in nonconference play including yet another halftime lead against a top-10 program in the country in Wisconsin.

But Buffalo began MAC play with a 6-6 record after a three-game losing streak that included its only two home losses of the season. The third loss of the streak was a 75-74 loss to conference runner-up Central Michigan.

At practice the following day, Hurley said there wasn’t much shooting going on. The usual practice monotony was replaced with mainly conditioning and film tape. Although the team didn’t want it, Hurley said it made them better. The response: an eight-game winning streak that propelled the team to a bid to the national tournament.

“I thought we were gaining momentum,” Hurley said. “We went on the road and won some games. There were a lot of games where we got a crowd support. I think the community likes watching our team … All these guys have made this what it is. It’s exciting about what is happening.”

There are many components to this year’s team that contributed to its success. Junior forward Justin Moss was named the MAC Player of the Year one year after McCrea, his predecessor at the power forward position, took home the award. Moss averaged a MAC-leading 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds and was one of the most improved players in all of college basketball.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the emergence of Ford. Ford was one of the most touted prospects to ever enter the program. After three subpar seasons, he earned a starting spot and averaged career-highs in points (9.3) and rebounds (6.3) while exceeding in a part of his game that he hadn’t used prior to this season – the 3-point shot.

“It’s just hard work,” Ford said. “I always knew I was capable of making the shot. I got tired of people slacking off on me, I felt disrespected. It comes from hard work and I couldn’t have done that without my teammates.”

And at the helm of the team was Hurley, the coach that guided the team to its first national appearance in his second year as head coach. On Monday, Hurley was named one of 16 finalists for the Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year award, which recognizes the nation’s best mid-major coach.

And the players think the same way. After the Bulls were defeated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Ford said he “loves Hurley to death” and “has done so much for me.”

On Tuesday, multiple reports surfaced that Hurley is a candidate to take over the head coaching position at DePaul University, although nothing has been confirmed. ESPN reported that Hurley will interview with DePaul this weekend and is the frontrunner. Hurley called it “speculation” and hasn’t “had the chance to do anything more than just stay in the moment with my team,” according to The Chicago Tribune.

No matter what the future holds for the head coach, Buffalo will return six of its eight top scorers and will welcome four four-star recruits next season. Whether or not Hurley is with the team or not next season, there is one aspect of this season that won’t change.

“Last week, I was talking to [Xavier] and the biggest thing I noticed is whenever I look at [him], we can say we’re MAC champs,” said senior forward Will Regan. “And that can never be taken away.”

Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor. He can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com