Nate Oats would be the first to say his job as a University at Buffalo assistant coach and top recruiter was made easier because he had Bobby Hurley’s name behind him. Hurley opened the door, but it was Oats who usually closed the deal.
In a sense, that’s what happened with UB’s basketball program over the past five-plus years. Hurley proved the Bulls could become a top team in the Mid-American Conference, opening the door to the NCAA tournament. Oats took it from there.
Buffalo cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in history Monday after beating 13th-ranked West Virginia on the road over the weekend. The Bulls, who are ranked 25th, were considered a strong mid-major before taking down the Mountaineers in their own building.
“It speaks to the work everyone in this program has put in over the last 5½ years since we took over,” Oats said via text hours before UB’s 62-53 victory over Southern Illinois. “We’ve built on what Coach Hurley and our staff started.”
Oats was a terrific high school coach at Romulus High in Detroit, where built a superpower. Hurley hired him on the advice of his brother, Dan, who was coaching at Rhode Island and had a relationship with Oats while recruiting former Romulus star E.C. Matthews.
Former Athletic Director Danny White made a bold move, and the right one, when he promoted Oats after Hurley left for Arizona State in 2015. Oats had a 222-52 record at the high school level and in less than four years has become one of the best young coaches in Division I.
Oats has led the Bulls to the NCAA tournament twice in three years as a head coach. Last year, they were the best team in the MAC and finished with a 27-9 record overall, 15-3 in the conference. They scored a first-round upset in the Big Dance when knocking out Arizona.
Now, they’re looking for more.
Oats entered the season believing UB could become one of the top mid-majors in the country, the way Gonzaga and Butler were when they gained national prominence. The win over West Virginia may have surprised some, but it wasn’t a shock to anyone familiar with Buffalo.
“Our current players have built the current culture into one that can compete against anyone,” Oats said. “Their confidence comes from the hard work they put in on a daily basis.” The ranking recognizes both the talent and character of the individuals that we have on the team.”
The Bulls added another recruiting chip to their arsenal with the Top 25 ranking. Oats signed a five-year contract extension last March. He has remained a recruiter at heart, which has helped him lure numerous players who had potential but were overlooked by teams from power conferences.
Buffalo is loaded with talent at depth again this year and is favored to win another MAC title. No longer are players settling for UB. The Bulls have become a destination for players who are looking to develop while also getting a chance to play right away.
C.J. Massinburg has blossomed at UB. The senior guard scored a career-high 43 points and had 14 rebounds against WVU. He became the eighth Division I player since 2010-11 to score 40 points with 14 rebounds in the same game.
Jeremy Harris was a top junior-college player before showing up in Bufalo last season and making an immediate contribution. The Bulls have two tough, competitive guards in junior Davonta Jordan and senior Dontay Caruthers who can score when needed. They have a fearless slasher in Jayvon Graves.
Forward Nick Perkins is a starter on most MAC teams but agreed to come off the bench because Oats convinced him he would help the Bulls. Jordan and Caruthers sacrificed scoring and evolved into two of the best defensive players in the conference.
This year, UB added 6-5 freshman guard Jeenathan Williams, a schoolboy star from Rochester who was recruited heaving by Rutgers and Saint Louis before signing with Buffalo. Point guard Ronaldo Segu was a dribbling prodigy who arrived from Orlando.
UB soared into the Top 25 this week, but they hope it was only the start. Oats has built his program for long-term success. The recent ranking was five years in the making.
The last ranked team from Western New York was St. Bonaventure, which rose to 10th nationally in 1970-71. Niagara was ranked 17th the previous season. Canisius hasn't been ranked since 1956-57, when it was 20th.
Buffalo fans desperate for a winner in a big-time sport are climbing aboard a bandwagon that has plenty of room. Hurley may have started the truck, but Oats is sitting the driver’s seat.
“This is huge for the City of Buffalo,” Oats said. “It’s a blue-collar city and we’ve taken on the image of the city in how we play. Our kids are fearless, and it shows it how we compete.”