Bulls don’t want to be this year’s Loyola Chicago
Buffalo won’t be another ‘flash in the pan,’ according to head coach
Loyola-Chicago, as an 11 seed in the NCAA March Madness tournament, made a magical run to the final four last season. The Ramblers took over the television screens of millions of Americans, who watched in awe as the unknown school and its 99-year-old mascot Sister Jean stole hearts and produced one of the best underdog stories of the year.
The question surrounding college basketball this season has been ‘Who will be this year’s Loyola-Chicago?’ The answer, for the most part, has been Buffalo: a team with five seniors, an upset win in last year’s tournament and its own eccentric mascot — UB Naked Guy.
But the Bulls don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. They want to be a legacy.
“A lot of mid-majors have gone in and upset somebody in the tournament,” said head coach Nate Oats. “[They’re] kind of like a 'flash in the pan’-type deal and make a run to the final four or whatever and follow up with a bad year. We won a game in the tournament and followed it up being ranked in the Top-25 most of the year. We're not a ‘flash in the pan.’ We're going to keep this thing growing.”
Buffalo broke a 50-year record in the Mid-American Conference last week. The Bulls are the first MAC team to be ranked for 12 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press Top-25 poll. Bowling Green was ranked for 11 consecutive weeks in 1961-62.
Still, there have been doubts about UB being able to maintain a Top-25 ranking.
The Bulls lost on a last-second shot to Northern Illinois and many thought that it could be the end of UB being ranked or drop them into the 20-and-below range of the poll. Instead, Buffalo went from a tie with Texas Tech at 14 and slipped just four spots to 18.
Buffalo dropped seven spots after losing to Marquette earlier this season.
“Nobody predicted” where the Bulls would be today when Oats and current Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley took over the program six years ago, according to Oats.
“To make our first NCAA tournament four years ago, to winning a game last year, to being ranked for 12-straight weeks kind of speaks to every year we've been able to grow this thing,” Oats said.
Along with the coaching staff, senior guard CJ Massinburg and senior forward Nick Perkins have been program changers.
Massinburg and Perkins are both among the top 10 all-time scorers and will join the likes of Jim Horne and Sam Pellom in the rafters of Alumni Arena after graduating.
But it takes more than two players to build a Top-25 team. Senior guard Dontay Caruthers transferred to Buffalo after a year at Midland Community College under current assistant coach Bryan Hodgson. Caruthers’ cousin is Javon McCrea, UB’s all-time leading scorer.
Caruthers, unlike Oats, was confident the Bulls would be a Top-25 team.
“They had great guys when I was coming in with Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner, and David Kadiri. Those were guys that went to the tournament,” Caruthers said. “So me coming in and knowing whenever it’s my chance to lead then we can be something even more. I always knew this was a great school for me to come to.”
Senior forward Montell McRae didn’t have the same mentality as Caruthers when he transferred to Buffalo from South Plains Junior College.
“I knew that I wanted to get to the tournament and Buffalo was the best possibility for me, but a Top-25 team is like a dream come true,” McRae said. “I never expected us to be a Top-25 team.”
Buffalo is in the process of legitimizing itself as a top Division-I school. It has a shot to be the best MAC team of all time with this year’s regular-season success.
But college basketball success is mainly determined by performances in the postseason. Legendary runs by mid-majors like Loyola-Chicago and MAC teams like Kent State and Ohio in the tournament motivate the Bulls toward postseason success.
Oats believes that, as a coach, you realize it is harder to sustain success over a 31-game season rather than a few games in the NCAA tournament. But he said he understands the importance of tournament success.
Still, Buffalo tries to not be distracted by the polls and recognition.
“That’s not going to save us on the court,” Caruthers said.
The Bulls have Caruthers’ infectious confidence that they’re going to be able to keep the success going even as their five seniors graduate. Between the two freshmen Ronaldo Segu and Jeenathan Williams and its three current junior college commitments for next season, Buffalo looks to join Gonzaga as a new perennial mid-major contender.
“We got guys here sitting out, the freshmen in the program and our recruits coming in are going to keep this thing growing after this year,” Oats said. “We're not trying to have a great team, we're trying to have a great program. A great program shows up like this on a yearly basis, so that's what we're trying to get to and I think we've got it to that point now.”