The Buffalo Bulls men’s basketball team made its mark on college basketball last March when it stampeded all over the fourth-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Buffalo shattered Arizona and future No. 1 NBA Draft pick DeAndre Ayton’s hopes of reaching a Final Four, beating Sean Miller’s club by 21 points.
Championed by head coach Nate Oats, the Bulls won its first ever NCAA Tournament game in emphatic fashion just three years after making the team’s first March Madness appearance in 2015. In that year, Nate Oats was Bobby Hurley’s top assistant and three years before that, Oats was coaching high school basketball just outside of Detroit.
Now, Oats is coaching the 14th ranked team in the country and brings a perfect 10-0 record heading into tonight’s contest against the Syracuse Orange. The Bulls have already taken down a ranked foe on the season and seem destined to make another run at the NCAA Tournament in 2019. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim noted in Saturday’s press conference that he thinks Buffalo is a top 10 team in the country.
How does something like that happen so fast at UB and how did a relatively young guy like Oats come onto the scene as auspicious head coach of the Buffalo Bulls?
Nate Oats grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin where he went on to be a starter on his high-school basketball team from his sophomore to senior years. He then continued his playing career at the Division III level enrolling at Maranatha Baptist where his father was a professor. Oats started to become interested in basketball at around the fifth or sixth grade when a college program in Central New York began to capture his eye.
“Ironically enough I grew up a Syracuse fan. Wisconsin wasn’t very good when I was younger,” Oats said in a telephone conversation Monday afternoon. “I graduated from eighth grade in ‘89, so go back to late 80’s when they had Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas throwing lobs to Stevie Thompson, Ronnie Seikaly, Billy Owens came in. I was a huge Syracuse fan. I had the Syracuse Starter jacket, the whole deal. I remember when Matt Roe transferred to Maryland I was all upset because all we needed was a shooter to win the National Championship.”
During that stretch, Syracuse lost on a game-winning jump-shot in the waning moments of the 1987 Nation Championship game to Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, lost in the second round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament and made it to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Oats played his high school and college ball not long thereafter.
Following his playing days at Maranatha Baptist, Oats moved into an assistant coaching role at his alma mater for three seasons and then moved on to be an assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. After a short stint at Wisconsin-Whitewater, a former teammate at Maranatha named Ed Horn convinced him to apply to the head coaching position at Romulus High School in Detroit.
“I never really planned on getting into high school but when I went to visit there Ed kind of got me the interview, got me a foot in the door and I liked it there a lot. I liked the kids.”
Oats took the job and began to settle into his role early as the head coach of Romulus where he coached Ron Coleman, who later went on to play at Michigan for Tommy Amaker. As he nestled into his role as high-school basketball coach, Oats began to expand his roots just outside of Detroit. His family grew from two to five as he and his wife brought three girls into the world.
Never one to stop learning, Oats would make his annual rounds in the fall with one of his assistants just before basketball season to visit college or NBA training camps. In the fall of 2010 his assistant came up with the idea to take a trek to Staten Island in New York. Oats and his assistant were hopeful to pick the mind of Bobby Hurley Sr. as his son Danny was in his first season on the Wagner job.
“So I call the Wagner offices,” Oats begins “They’re low-budget. No secretary. So Bobby Hurley answers the phone. So I’m talking to Bobby because they have no secretary so I explain to Bobby what I’m trying to do, you know, I let him know we have some players involved. That gets you in the door a little bit more with college coaches. So he was cool, gave me his cell phone, said ‘I’m going to try to talk to my dad to make it work.’”
Oats and Bobby Hurley exchanged texts for a few weeks but couldn’t coordinate an effort that would allow for either of their schedules. So they scrapped the idea for the time being.
Two years later Danny Hurley was hired at Rhode Island and Oats had a player by the name of E.C. Matthews at Romulus who happened to be a top-100 recruit in the country at the time. After he was hired at URI, Hurley made a trip out to Detroit to visit with Oats and Matthews and not long thereafter, Oats accompanied Matthews to an unofficial visit to Rhode Island.
“I didn’t tell E.C. to go there. I just walked E.C. through the pros and cons for a lot of different places, sat down with him and his mom and talked through the recruitment,” Oats divulged. “E.C. kind of out of the blue, as a matter fact I got a text from Danny I remember at my daughter’s soccer game and he said ‘I think E.C. is about to commit to us,’ I didn’t even know.”
The rest was history and later the 2012-13 year, Matthews helped Romulus High School to a state title by dropping 37 points in the Breslin Center (where Michigan State plays) in front of his then-future coach Danny Hurley. Oats meanwhile won multiple coach of the year awards in Detroit. Matthews of course went on to Rhode Island where he was instrumental in helping the Rams earn berths to the 2017 and 2018 NCAA Tournaments.
Soon after Romulus won the 2013 state title, Bobby Hurley was offered the Buffalo head coaching job and Danny got on the phone with Oats to confirm Matthews’ commitment to URI. It was then that Danny asked if Oats had any interest in following Bobby to Buffalo to be an assistant.
“Bobby calls me that night, we talked for 20 minutes he’s telling me he’s going to interview people at the Final Four, will I be there? I used go the Final Four every year as a high school coach. So I interview with him at the Final Four and he hires me.”
“I don’t go with somebody I’m not 100 percent confident is going to make it and do really well. I’m not going because I’ve got three young daughters, I’m not moving every two years after getting fired,” He continued. “I said ‘if we do this, this has to be something that we have, we can’t fail.’”
Syracuse of course made the Final Four that year in 2013 down in Atlanta where Oats and Bobby Hurley convened. Hurley later told Oats that his line on not failing resonated with him and that he wanted to hire him as his top assistant. Oats obliged and a new journey began as he would soon hit the recruiting trail as a college coach. He soon secured a commitment from Justin Moss.
In Hurley’s first year at Buffalo he pushed his team to a 19-10 record and by year two he won the Mid-American Conference Tournament en route to a 23-10 record while securing an automatic bid to the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the first in school history. Moss won Player of the Year in the MAC and while the Bulls exited the tournament early to No. 5 seed West Virginia, history was made.
So much so that Hurley left to take the Arizona State job that April and Oats was promoted to head man at Buffalo after the Bull’s first tournament appearance.
Expectations were low in the 2015-16 season given the team had lost five of its top players while Moss was kicked out of school. The team got off to a rocky start in non-conference play that season but picked things up in conference play and turned it around in the MAC tournament. To much surprise, Buffalo won the MAC tournament and secured the auto-bid — UB was heading to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years.
The Bulls were pinned up against No. 3 seed Miami in the opening round and kept things competitive before ultimately losing 79-72. Still, a tournament run in an expected down year was a tremendous accomplishment.
The building blocks were in place for the following year until the wheels began to wobble and UB piled on losses. Oats admits his squad just wasn’t as hungry in 2016-17 as it should have been with an opportunity to do what no MAC team had ever done and return to the NCAA Tournament for three years straight. He said his team’s culture wasn’t where it needed to be and while it finished above .500 and would have been considered a success in any other year before he and Hurley arrived, it was a bad year in Oats’ mind.
“We did a complete culture shift. We kind of put together a culture playbook, We hired a mental skills coach who comes in twice a week and works with our guys and has been great. I think our culture is night and day now from where it was two years ago. Some of that is what we’ve done and a lot of it is just having great players. C.J., Nick and Jerami, we’ve got five seniors. Caruthers plays so hard, Davonta Jordan as a junior. The expectations are through the roof right now but when you’ve got the culture to where we’ve got it, it doesn’t really bother (us).”
Oats says his culture playbook consists of three core beliefs: max effort, continuous growth and selfless love. He says when those things are established, expectations don’t bother his team. He admits that a little pressure can be a good thing — the only time it’s bad is when it distracts, something he doesn’t think his team is. Eliminating that is key — Oats allowed his players only minimal phone time last year after his team beat Arizona in the tournament. After the win it was back to business to prepare for Kentucky.
Since beating Arizona in the NCAA Tournament last March, Oats is honest in assessing his program. Much has changed since then. His guys know that they can not only hang with the big boys in college basketball but they can beat them too.
“I think had we not beaten Arizona, maybe we fold at West Virginia when we get down double-digits. They’re now playing at that level where before we competed we had tight games against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, against Miami in the NCAA Tournament. We were up on some teams but couldn’t close. Now we know that. The recruiting will change. Now we don’t have to explain who Buffalo is on the recruiting trail. It opened up a lot more doors that way. I just think the expectations within the program along with outside the program changed. Now when we come into a game at West Virginia we expect to win.”
Buffalo of course did just that earlier this season when it charged into Morgantown against the then-13th ranked Mountaineers and unlike 2015, exited with a victory. C.J. Massinburg was like a bull in a china shop on his way to a 43-point outing on nine made threes and 14 rebounds. He was crucial down the stretch sending the game into overtime and continuing his efforts in the extra period.
Recruiting has also picked up to boot. While he committed before the Arizona win, Jeenathan Williams — a local kid from Rochester who was a fringe top-100 recruit — chose to play at UB despite having high-major offers from suitors such as Syracuse.
That brings us to today, where Oats will once again take the floor at the Carrier Dome to compete against the program he grew up a fan of as a youth in Wisconsin. For the second straight year, he’ll have a chance to knock off the Orange but this time Buffalo brings an undefeated record and No. 14 ranking into the fold.
“We come into a game against Syracuse, we know they’re good. We’re going to respect them. They have an unbelievable program. Coach Boeheim is one of the best coaches in the history of the game. They’ve got NBA players on this team. But we know we belong in the game. We’re not coming in in awe anymore. We’re done with that,” Oats said.
Last year the Bulls kept things close but Syracuse pulled away late in the game. Still, Oats was without one of his star defensive players in Dontay Caruthers. Both he and Davonta Jordan have earned defensive honors in the MAC in the last two years, so they’ll be pitted up against the Syracuse backcourt.
“Do we put Davonta on the point guard (Frank) Howard who handles the ball a lot or (Tyus) Battle who’s the leading scorer? We kind of have that dilemma but once I get Caruthers off the bench when they’re both in one will be on Howard and one will be on Battle. Which is which, we’ll have to figure out who’s doing a better job on who and who’s locked in. Those two are so similar on defense it almost doesn’t matter but I do like to have one of them on the floor at all times.”
“Howard is getting healthy though. We’ve been in the scouting report, we’ve been telling our guys don’t get fooled here by this year’s stats. Kid averaged like 15 and four last year. And we were up one with three minutes to go on them and he’s the one that came down and hit a big three to put them back up two and never relinquished the lead. He hurt us last year. He’s more than capable — the healthier he gets the closer he’s going to get to averaging 15 again.”
The awe factor won’t be at play this time around when Buffalo steps into the Carrier Dome tonight. No, the Buffalo Bulls belong and they’ve proven that. They’re more than capable of winning this contest — given how things look right now for both teams, the Bulls probably have the edge. Even still, Oats can’t help but think back to all those games in the late 1980’s when he first started to become infatuated with basketball.
“I think it’s awesome. You get back to watching those games, Sherman Douglas hiking the ball between his legs. Him throwing lobs at half-court to Stevie Thompson. I got to know Derrick Coleman a little bit when I was in Detroit 11 years, come back to where those guys all played,” Oats said. “I’m excited, I think our players are excited. I think the Dome has a little mystique about it.”
It sure does. Oats might have a little mystique about himself, too.
For stories and updates, follow James on twitter @JamesSzuba.