Bulls’ record-set­ting sea­son has own shin­ing mo­ments

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - COM­MEN­TARY

My two most mem­o­rable, can-you-be­lieveit mo­ments from the Univer­sity at Buf­falo’s dream men’s bas­ket­ball sea­son were:

1. Syra­cuse coach Jim Boe­heim sit­ting in the post-game news con­fer­ence af­ter watch­ing his team lose handily to the Bulls — in the Car­rier Dome — and ad­mit­ting, “They’re faster, quicker, I think they’re stronger.”

I re­mem­ber think­ing: Did Boe­heim just say that? About UB?

2. Sit­ting in Alumni Arena’s end-zone stands on Jan. 4 and watch­ing the Bulls hu­mil­i­ate Toledo, the sec­ond best team in the Mid-Amer­i­can Con­fer­ence. UB was up by 38 points with 5 min­utes to go be­fore let­ting up on the gas and win­ning, 110-80.

Toledo was ranked No. 52 at the time and fin­ished 62nd in the an­a­lyt­ics rank­ing. It was an awe-in­spir­ing dis­play of swarm­ing de­fense and ball-shar­ing of­fense, one of the most com­plete an­ni­hi­la­tions by a Big 4 team against a wor­thy foe this re­gion has ever seen.

The Bulls’ of­fen­sive ma­chine seized up and died just off Route 66 in Tulsa Sun­day in the sec­ond round of the NCAA Tour­na­ment. Two days af­ter play­ing per­haps their best all-around game of the sea­son in beat­ing Ari­zona State, the Bulls ran into a meat-grinder in the form of the Texas Tech de­fense. It’s too bad the Bulls laid an egg, but there’s no shame in los­ing to the No. 9-ranked team in the na­tion.

UB fans now can revel in the mem­o­ries from five months of fun. CJ Mass­in­burg scor­ing 44 to beat then-13th-ranked West Vir­ginia. Jayvon Graves pos­ter­iz­ing help­less de­fend­ers from Dart­mouth and West Vir­ginia. The tic-tac-toe, fast-break dunk by Jeremy Har­ris at Kent State. Wait­ing for the As­so­ci­ated Press poll to come out ev­ery Mon­day to see where the Bulls landed. The run to an un­prece­dented fourth MAC ti­tle in the last five years. And on and on.

On one hand, UB fans can view with melan­choly the end of the great­est sea­son by a Big 4 team in 47 years, since the St. Bon­aven­ture run to the Fi­nal Four in 1970.

It might be an­other 47 years be­fore a Big 4 team wins 32 games in a sea­son … or gets ranked in the polls for 19 straight weeks.

It’s rare to grad­u­ate the sec­ond- and fifth­high­est scor­ers in school his­tory (Mass­in­burg and Nick Perkins) in the same class. And while most win­ning teams have good chem­istry, the un­selfish­ness of the UB se­niors was es­pe­cially un­com­mon.

Mass­in­burg scored 1,990 ca­reer points de­spite not re­ally be­ing a vol­ume shooter. Perkins was will­ing to win three straight MAC Sixth Man of the Year awards. Jeremy Har­ris was the mas­ter of the ex­tra perime­ter pass that left team­mates with wide open, check-the­seams 3-balls.

Don­tay Caruthers was a high-scor­ing, high­school gun­ner who turned him­self into MAC De­fen­sive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, UB re­mains the power pro­gram of the MAC.

The UB ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­sponded to the suc­cess of the past six years by in­creas­ing sup­port. Nate Oats is the high­est paid coach in the con­fer­ence af­ter sign­ing his new deal, at $837,000 per year, not count­ing bonus money. The sec­ond-best paid MAC coach gets $650,000, and most are in the $350,000 range.

And de­spite the grad­u­a­tion losses, UB should be very good next year.

Re­turn­ing guards Davonta Jor­dan and Graves have all-MAC abil­ity. Graves is a wor­thy suc­ces­sor to Mass­in­burg, both in play­ing abil­ity and lead­er­ship. Ant­wain John­son, a 6-foot-2 trans­fer from Mid­dle Ten­nessee State who sat out this year, is a star in wait­ing. He’s a dead­eye shooter with a good han­dle.

The Bulls need 6-foot-5 Jeenathan Wil­liams, a top-100 re­cruit, to get bet­ter as a sopho­more. Gabe Grant, a 6-5 trans­fer from Hous­ton, will help the front­court.

Then there is the re­cruit­ing class, which in­cludes two of the top 30 ju­nior col­lege re­cruits in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to Ju­core­cruit­ing.com, in 6-9 An­dre Allen and 6-7 James Ro­jas.

Of course, just how long UB can keep Oats and his staff is a ques­tion that’s not go­ing away. In the wake of his ex­ten­sion, all ev­i­dence in­di­cates Oats is firmly com­mit­ted to UB for the next year, at the least.

That would be great for UB, be­cause with ev­ery­body back and the re­cruits in place, the Bulls are a top-three MAC team next year and a le­git­i­mate NCAA Tour­na­ment threat again.

At some point, you have to think Oats will find it im­pos­si­ble to turn down a $2.5-mil­lona-year job. That’s what the Big 10 pays. Oats is a Mid­west guy, a Wis­con­sin na­tive. He seems per­fect for the Big Ten. The boost in his UB salary means he can aim high. He’s not leav­ing for Duquesne, like Akron’s Keith Dam­brot did, or an­other job that’s go­ing to pay him a lit­tle over $1 mil­lion a year.

There are no Big 10 jobs open this year.

What if there’s a domino ef­fect? What if Texas A&M hires Vir­ginia Tech’s Buzz Wil­liams, then Vir­ginia Tech comes call­ing? Vir­ginia Tech isn’t an easy job in the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence. But the Hok­ies pay $2.75 mil­lion a year.

UB fans are just go­ing to have to live with that kind of off­sea­son ten­sion. It’s a good prob­lem to have. And when­ever Oats leaves, the UB job will be coveted. UB just sent its last ath­letic di­rec­tor to Auburn, for gosh sakes. UB should be able to woo many of the top as­sis­tants in the coun­try the next time it goes look­ing for a coach.

This re­mark­able sea­son in­grained UB bas­ket­ball deeper into the psy­che of both the univer­sity com­mu­nity and Buf­falo sports fans.

It will be in­ter­est­ing for ev­ery­one to watch where the UB jug­ger­naut goes.

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