Men’s basketball was selected to partake in the National Invitational Tournament, college basketball’s oldest competition, despite falling short to Ohio in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game Saturday.
The Bulls are determined not to take the opportunity for granted.
“It’s incredibly hard to make the NIT, let alone in this situation with the pandemic and all the craziness that’s come across it,” UB head coach Jim Whitesell said. “And they only have 16 teams, [so] we’re honored to be playing in it.”
The Bulls head into tournament play as the No. 4 seed and will battle No. 1 seed Colorado State on Saturday in Denton, TX.
The tournament usually hosts 32 teams and is played at Madison Square Garden in New York City, but will be hosted by the University of North Texas and have just 16 teams in 2021, as a result of COVID-19.
Even though the tournament’s teams – Memphis, Saint Louis and Ole Miss among them – missed out on the coveted NCAA Tournament, Whitesell and his staff acknowledge the high level of competition..
But Whitesell’s team played its best basketball in the lead-up to the MAC Championship Game. UB’s late-season push powered them to multiple big wins, and now the opportunity to not only play, but make some noise, in the NIT.
“You look at the field, all these teams could have been in the NCAA Tournament. They either played in the [conference] championship game or were in consideration,” Whitesell said. “I think the other thing that helped us is that we won 10 out of 11 and a lot of those games, we won big.”
The NIT was launched in 1938 and was once the most illustrious tournament in college basketball. Whitesell wants his players to seize the moment and understand the tournament’s history.
“For our guys, we threw up a montage of players they obviously know of. I told them that these are great players that have played in this tournament,” Whitesell said. “It was a real positive thing for our players to see that and understand the history of it [the NIT].”
The Bulls will kick off tournament play against CSU in the first round Friday night.
The Rams finished third in the Mountain West Conference, ending the regular season with an 18-6 overall record, including a 14-4 clip in conference play.
Whitesell stressed the importance of containing the Rams’ explosive backcourt, which consists of two double-digit scorers: sophomore guard Isaiah Stevens and junior guard Kendle Moore.
While the Bulls will have their hands full with CSU’s backcourt, slowing down sophomore forward David Roddy – the team-leader in points per game, at 16.1, and rebounds per game, at 9.5 – is also a point of emphasis for Whitesell.
“They’re excellent in the backcourt and are very fast,” Whitesell said. “They’ve got a young man named David Roddy, who was first-team All-League and was kind of a mismatch guy.”
The MAC is a two-bid league this year, with Toledo joining the Bulls in Texas. UB junior guard Ronaldo Segu believes Buffalo making the NIT reflects well on the conference.
“It’s making the conference look real strong. I feel like that’s bringing a lot of recognition to us and how strong the conference is,” Segu said. “I feel like it’s really good that we get to play in the NIT because not a lot of teams get to play in it.”
Segu says playing in the tournament will benefit the team going forward. UB’s dominant trio of Segu, junior forward Jeenathan Williams and junior forward Josh Mballa are poised to return next year. This tournament allows them to build momentum going into their final season.
“It will be really valuable just to keep building our team because we have such a young base and a lot of returners coming back,” Segu said. “This is just to build us, work on us and look forward to the future and build off of it.”
UB hopes to take home the NIT Championship, but they must first make it past the Rams in Denton.
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