UB Bulls continue to play loose heading into second straight NCAA appearance

Buffalo has defied expectations and faced adversity all season, faces Miami in round of 64


PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND – The Buffalo men’s basketball team looked like a team about to play in its second straight NCAA Tournament Wednesday afternoon.

Head coach Nate Oats playfully tried to swat away the ball from his sophomore point guard Lamonte Bearden on the court of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

Junior wing and Mid-American Conference Tournament MVP Willie Conner laughed as he lost his sneaker driving across the top of the key.

The team egged on 5-foot-7 guard Christian Pino to try to touch the rim, which he did – albeit just barley.

The Bulls (20-14, 10-8 MAC), despite less than ideal circumstances, have been cool and calm this entire unexpected championship repeat season - and will have to stay that way if they want any hope of upsetting No. 3 seed Miami (25-7, 13-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) in the round of 64 Thursday night.

“If you come into a game like this tight, that doesn’t help anything,” Oats said. “Hopefully Miami is the one that gets a little tight. They’re supposed to win … They have to make every shot. We don’t have to make every shot. We’ll play a little looser than them hopefully.”

It didn’t seem likely Buffalo would be back at the big dance at the start of this season - not after former head coach Bobby Hurley and star point guard Shannon Evans left for Arizona State and took prized transfers and reinforcements Torian Graham and Maurice O’Field with them. And especially not after former MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss was expelled from UB for a summer dorm theft.

Oats, who was promoted to head coach after serving as Hurley’s assistant, has kept the team afloat and in position for a MAC title run with some junior college transfers and impact freshmen.

Yet the biggest adversity Buffalo has faced this season had nothing to do with roster changes, but with its head coach’s family. Oats’ wife Crystal was diagnosed with double-hit lymphoma just weeks before the season began – bringing Oats close to taking a leave of absence.

But Oats has continued to coach, with his phone always close at hand in case an emergency comes up. He’s gotten help from just about everywhere, like his team breaking huddles with chants of “Crystal,” his mother-in-law and a nanny helping watch his three young daughters – even opposing teams raising money to help pay for Crystal’s medical bills.

Crystal just recently finished her last round of chemotherapy and is scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant next month. She’s in Providence with the team to see Thursday’s game.

Oats said Wednesday that “you’ve kind of got to compartmentalize stuff, come to the office, deal with it.”

His demeanor seems like it’s rubbed off on his team, which has dealt with multiple tragedies this season, like the deaths of guard Nikola Rakicevic’s mother and associate head coach Jim Whitesell’s younger brother.

“I think it made us tougher as a team,” said junior wing Blake Hamilton, one of Oats’ JUCO transfers and who hit the game-winning three in the MAC Championship game against Akron last weekend. “We kind of feed off the energy of Coach Oats. And Coach Oats, he's a tough guy. For him to still even be coaching us after everything he's gone through with his family, it just shows how much of a great guy he is.”

Hamilton, Conner and Bearden were all relaxed and loose Wednesday – saying the team is enjoying the experience of the NCAA Tournament while “locking in” and taking a “business approach” to Thursday’s game.

Buffalo put up a good fight against West Virginia, a No. 5 seed, in last season’s NCAA Tournament before dropping the game 68-62. Despite Buffalo’s appearance at the big dance just last season, the team has just three players on its roster who have significant NCAA Tournament experience: Bearden and senior guards Jarryn Skeete and Rodell Wigginton.

“The other guys that was here last year told us just take it in, enjoy it, have fun,” Conner said. “That’s our main thing. We want to go out there and have fun and play as hard as we can and hopefully come out on top.”

Miami players and coaches favorably compared Buffalo to some of their fellow ACC opponents like Virginia Tech and Wake Forest Wednesday, but made no mistake that they’re fully expecting to come out of Thursday’s game advancing to the round of 32.

“I think overall they’re a good matchup for us,” said Miami senior guard Angel Rodriguez. “I have tremendous belief in our team and our guards and our bigs and doing what we need to do to stop them.”

Buffalo has faced a similar style to Miami’s twice already this season. Bowling Green head coach Michael Huger worked as an assistant under Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga last season and played under him when Larrañaga coached Bowling Green from 1986-97. Oats called Miami “Bowling Green on steroids.”

Buffalo swept Bowling Green in the regular season and scored at least 87 points both times.

“Bowling Green likes to get up and down, as well, and I think we handled that at our place and their place pretty much, pretty good,” Conner said. “So I feel confident about going in tomorrow and playing against Miami.”

But even Oats admits Miami has one key piece Bowling Green did not have: an athletic 7-footer at the rim.

Miami senior center and Nigeria native Tonye Jekiri averages 8.0 points and 8.9 rebounds a game and is two inches taller than anyone on Buffalo’s roster – the Bulls’ tallest player is 6-foot-10 Nigerian Ikenna Smart. Rodriguez said Jekiri’s size advantage should cause “a lot of problems” for Buffalo and open up things for the Hurricane’s guards.

So Buffalo will have to focus on its three-point shooting, which was mediocre during the regular season (33.7 percent) but kicked up during the MAC Tournament. Buffalo shot 43 percent and made 35 threes in three tournament games.

“It’s not what you’re doing in November, December, January - it’s what you’re doing in March, and they shot the ball pretty darn well in the MAC Tournament,” Larrañaga said. “For our defense to be as good as it needs to be, we can’t allow them to go off from the three-point line.”

Oats knows he can’t slow down his fast-paced team to adjust to Miami. He admitted his team no longer has a Moss “to punch the ball into every time down the floor.”

But Oats and the Bulls have made it this far with a collection of returnees, JUCO transfers and freshmen who do a little bit of everything. They’re players that Oats sold on coming to Buffalo with last season’s NCAA Tournament appearance and a chance for a repeat. That didn’t seem likely just a few months ago, but Oats has been able to come through on his promises.

“When you come in and are able to do it the next year, it really helps solidify the fact that what you were selling wasn't just a bunch of talk, that you're able to deliver on it,” Oats said. “It wasn't easy by any stretch. It was a tough year. We had some ups and downs through the year. But guys bought in and came together at the right time.”

Thursday’s tipoff is set for 6:50 p.m.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.