AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) — Coach Nate Oats stood beneath the basket with his arms folded, watching the chaos of his Buffalo players practice at their usual frenetic pace.
Arms flailed. Rubber squeaked. And then came the thud of bodies colliding and falling to the court, as backup freshman Jeenathan Williams slid past Oats after sinking a layup. Williams immediately jumped up and spit out a profanity, criticizing star guard CJ Massinburg for allowing him to score.
Oats stood unmoved, smiled and said nothing, allowing his players to sort things out for themselves.
“I like them guys going at it,” Oats said later. “It shouldn’t be easy on CJ in practice.”
The 16th-ranked Mid-American Conference Bulls (16-1) didn’t get off to their best start in school history — including wins at West Virginia and Syracuse — and put themselves in a position to secure a fourth NCAA Tournament berth in five years by being soft and unaccountable.
It’s a reason why Oats welcomes an occasional dose of conflict to practice, because it underscores the relentless, fast-paced, free-wheeling style he’s demanded from his team in the four years since taking over following Bobby Hurley’s departure.
“I don’t want to play scared,” he said. “Get your mindset to where we’re going out to crush people. We’re going to hunt.”
No shot is a bad one. And no opponent too imposing, as reflected in Buffalo’s challenging non-conference schedule, which included a 103-85 loss at Marquette last month. Oats prefers toughening up his team rather than pad the record with pushovers.
“I think life in general, if you’re scared about stuff, you’re not going anywhere,” he said.
After a 30-point win over Toledo last week, in a rematch of last year’s MAC tournament championship game, Oats bluntly noted how Buffalo “demolished” a good team.
Then there was last month’s game at regional rival St. Bonaventure where Bonnies fans looked forward to welcoming Buffalo by chanting “We want UB!” in the final minutes of their preceding 82-40 rout of Siena. The Bulls had barely left St. Bonaventure following their 80-62 win, when Oats posted a note on Twitter, saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”
It’s no coincidence Buffalo’s senior-laden players have adopted their coach’s mentality.
“We’ve got guys like that on our team who have a fearless mentality no matter who it is, who we’re playing. We’re going out to win,” senior forward Nick Perkins said. “I think that’s something Nate instilled in us these last four years.”
That was evident during Buffalo’s tournament appearance last year, when the 13th-seeded Bulls opened with a stunning 89-69 romp over Arizona, before a 95-75 loss to Kentucky.
Perkins still thinks the Bulls could have beaten Kentucky had they played better on defense.
“We lost that game because of us,” he said. “It had nothing to do with them.”
What’s striking is the 44-year-old Oats’ fast-track trajectory.
In six years, he’s gone from coaching at a suburban Detroit high school to landing a job on Hurley’s staff to overseeing one of the nation’s top mid-major programs this season.
In his first year alone after Hurley left for Arizona State, Oats led Buffalo to its second consecutive tournament appearance. He did so while dealing with the personal concerns of his wife being diagnosed with cancer, and having his best player, Justin Moss, expelled after being arrested for robbery.
It took former athletic director Danny White two days to promote Oats following Hurley’s departure. Continuity was one reason, as Oats was responsible for recruiting a majority of the players. Oats was also familiar with running a program, having spent 11 years transforming Romulus High School into a state power.
Oats considers himself fortunate and credits White for having the courage to take a chance on someone with no Division I experience.
Now the question becomes how long Oats remains in Buffalo before a major college lures him away.
Athletic director Mark Alnutt acknowledged he doesn’t have the budget to get into a bidding war. What gives him hope is how much Oats and his family enjoys Buffalo, and how the coach is already making plans for next season.
“It’s my hope and my intent that whatever we can do to continue to make Nate feel appreciated and continue to have him understand the commitment to basketball here,” Alnutt said. “It’s not a dollar-for-dollar match, but it’s an opportunity for us to continue what we all think this program can be, a Gonzaga of the world.”
Oats can envision building Buffalo into a perennial mid-major contender, as Mark Few has done at Gonzaga.
“I’m in a great spot. If I keep winning and something unbelievable pops up that I can’t turn down, then you look at it. But I’m not running to anything,” said Oats, who last summer purchased a $1 million home overlooking the Niagara River on Grand Island.
“Like, everybody assumes: ‘Coach Oats, you’re having a great year. You’re not going to be here much longer.’ And I’m like, ‘Why not?'” he said. “Just because somebody puts $2 million on the table doesn’t mean I have to take it. I get to make that decision. It’s my life. I like it here a lot.”
As with most everything else, Oats is unafraid of the future.
The last time he acknowledged being scared involving basketball was during his second year at Romulus in 2004, when his team was eliminated in the district semifinals. Oats had difficulty getting over how Romulus lost despite having two players committed to playing at Michigan.
“I cried after that. I didn’t let the kids see me, but I was real disappointed,” he recalled.
Weeks of soul-searching led Oats to the realization there are some things he cannot control, such as a player missing four free throws in the final minute of what became a 1-point loss.
It’s no different to how Oats had little control against Marquette in a game Golden Eagles’ Markus Howard scored 40 points in the second half.
“If a kid like Howard goes off, he goes off,” he said, beginning to smile.
“I’d love to see Marquette again in the NCAA Tournament. I would kill to have that rematch,” Oats said. “If I was a betting man, I’d put a lot of money on that one.”
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