No slipper for UB on Friday

The pressure will be on the sixth-seed Bulls

Howard Simon
March 18, 2019 - 3:13 pm

Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

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It used to be the goal for a Big-Four basketball program was to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. That is no longer the case for the University at Buffalo, which is why the pressure will be on the Bulls come Friday afternoon in Tulsa.

However, this is a good thing because it means the standard has been raised, and for that you can thank Bulls head coach Nate Oats. 

It is no longer just about getting into the 64 team field since this is the fourth trip to the tournament in the last five years for UB. Winning a first round game is no longer the bar either after last year’s annihilation of Arizona. In fact, if the Bulls don’t win on Friday, it will be a very disappointing end to, what has been, the greatest season in program history. After all, UB isn’t wearing Cinderella’s slipper for this round of the tournament. The Bulls are the six-seed, the highest seed for any Mid-American Conference school since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams. It's also the first time UB has been a single digit seed for the tournament. 

The Bulls have to win on Friday for a chance to accomplish the real goal for this season, a trip to the Sweet 16. There are a number of things to like about Oats. One is the fact that he isn’t afraid to tell you what he is really thinking. The MAC Coach of the Year has never shied away from the Sweet 16 talk at any point this season. Instead, Oats embraced it, and down the stretch of the regular season when an at large bid seemed assured, Oats kept talking about his team winning as many games as possible and a MAC Tournament championship to get a higher seed. He wasn’t thinking about being a five-seed so you open with a 12 as opposed to a seven facing a 10. Oats was thinking about the second round opponent. He didn’t want UB going in as a seven because a two seed would stand between them and the Sweet 16. As it turns out, if UB does win on Friday, it will likely face the three-seeded Texas Tech, the Big 12 regular season champs. A tall order indeed, but if we’ve learned anything about the Bulls in the Nate Oats era, we should know to never count them out.  

When it comes to the supposed formula for winning in the NCAA tournament, the Bulls check many of the boxes on the list. Usually the first item on that list is strong guard play, and UB certainly has that covered. Now they aren’t as deep as last season’s squad, due to the graduation of Wes Clark, but they are led by one of the greatest players to ever wear the blue and white in CJ Massinburg. Scoring, ball handling, passing, defending, sinking pressure-packed free throws in close games late, Massinburg has done it all in his UB career. In fellow backcourt mates Davonta Jordan and Dontay Caruthers, UB has two outstanding defenders. However, both have improved their offensive game over their careers in Amherst. Jordan has become a three-point threat, and Caruthers drives to the basket with no fear whatsoever. 

When a low post presence is needed, you have three-time MAC Sixth Man of the Year Nick Perkins, who presents a matchup nightmare since he can easily step outside and hit a three. The player who could put UB over the top in their march to the Sweet 16 is Jeremy Harris. Dubbed “Mr. March” by some, Harris struggled through most of the MAC schedule, but showed signs of coming around offensively in the final two games of the regular season. He was great in the MAC quarterfinal win over Akron and absolutely carried the Bulls with 31 points in the championship game victory over Bowling Green. Harris, who has the ability to hit the three but also the athleticism to slash to the basket, is averaging 20 points a game over his last five games.

The Bulls are deep and balanced, so you can’t just design a game plan to shut down Massinburg or Perkins. There are other players who have shown the ability to step up and provide difference making performances like Jayvon Graves, who had 17 points in the win over Bowling Green.

Remember what I said about UB facing the pressure as the six-seed? If they lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t handle the pressure. This is a mentally tough squad that put together a 31-3 record, while being the hunted all season long. They’ve been the team that would have been a feather in the cap for any opponent that managed to beat them. When you’re in the AP Top-25 for 19 straight weeks, that happens. The Bulls not only lived up to expectations this season, they exceeded them.

UB recorded the most wins ever by a MAC school and became the first program in conference history to win its postseason tournament four times in five years. Now, UB has a chance to do what had previously been unthinkable for a Big-Four program: make it to the second week of the NCAA tournament.

Don’t bet against Oats and company.

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