Oats returning home to lead No. 14 Buffalo against No. 20 Marquette
Since taking over the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team in 2015, Watertown native Nate Oats has experienced an incredible amount of success, earning two MAC Tournament Championships and two trips to the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons as head coach.
But there are limits.
Like how many tickets he was able to score when he brings his 14th-ranked and unbeaten Bulls to Milwaukee Friday for a game against 20th-ranked Marquette.
“(We needed) about five times as many as I have,” Oats said. “We didn’t get enough. I think I’ve got 19 family members coming. Everybody else had to buy their own. There’s a lot of people coming, but they had to buy the tickets. I felt bad about that, but it is what it is.”
Other than that?
“Not doing too bad,” Oats said with tongue in cheek by phone on Wednesday. “We’ve won a couple games. It’s going all right for us.”
The Bulls come to Wisconsin as Mid-Major darlings. They just beat in-state rival Syracuse on Tuesday, their first win over the Orange since January 1963. At 11-0, Buffalo is one of only nine undefeated teams of the 353 teams that play in Division 1.
Big wins over perennial powers are starting to become an expectation for a program some are itching to dub “the Gonzaga of the East.”
Buffalo joined the long list of storied Cinderella teams throughout March Madness lore when the 13th-seeded Bulls upset fourth-seeded Arizona 89-68 in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“(That win) put our program on a national level,” Oats said. “Everyone knows Buffalo basketball now. It opened a lot more doors in recruiting. Kids now believe they can beat major schools. It’s happened this season with wins over West Virginia and Syracuse. They have a confidence that can only come once you do something like this.”
The Bulls posted a school record 27 wins last season and returned several standouts from that team. Senior guard CJ Massinburg and senior forward Nick Perkins were first team All-MAC selections a year ago, while senior guard Jeremy Harris made the second team. Junior guard Devonta Jordan was named to the MAC All-Defensive Team.
That level of returning talent caught the eye of AP voters, particularly Graham Couch from the Lansing State Journal in Michigan. Couch was an early advocate for the Bulls.
“I love this Buffalo team, have since last season,” Couch said recently in an interview with The Buffalo News. “CJ Massinburg, I think, is a pro. What happens one year shouldn’t really carry over to the next, but what Buffalo did to Arizona and how many players the Bulls had returning made them worth watching out of the gate.”
Oats entered the season with optimism but steered clear of setting specific goals for his team.
“We knew our ceiling was high,” Oats said. “We didn’t really set any goals, like get to the Final Four or anything. We just wanted to tap our potential. (To make a deep run in the tournament), you’ve got to catch some breaks and play really well at the right time. I don’t want guys thinking, ‘If we don’t get to the Sweet 16, it’s a failure.’ It’s a one game deal. You can lose one game and still be successful.
“But we did talk a lot about our ceiling. I feel we can play with just about anybody in the country.”
Oats obviously appreciated the props from Couch. He coached high school basketball in Michigan for 11 seasons, so the name was familiar.
“People I knew (when I was coaching at Romulus High School) knew him,” Oats said. “He’s got an interesting perspective. I like what he does. It’s so hard with a Mid-Major schedule. (Most voters) refuse to put anybody in the Top 25 if you haven’t (faced larger schools).
“High majors should be on the same schedule parameter. Teams like Syracuse and Marquette are never coming to Buffalo. They just give us money to come to play them. We want the games, but we have to go play them on the road to get them.”
Bulls fans sure didn’t mind seeing their team go into Syracuse and beat one of the most storied programs in men’s basketball for the first time in 65 years.
“That was huge,” Oats said. “It’s western New York, two hours down the road. Now, Buffalo fans have bragging rights.”
The early wins over West Virginia and Syracuse put Buffalo in prime position for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, with or without another MAC Championship. Oats feels a win over the Golden Eagles on Friday would all but guarantee another trip to the dance.
That figures to be a major challenge.
Junior guard Markus Howard is averaging 19.4 points per game for Marquette (9-2) and has plenty of talent around him.
“They are really good,” Oats said. “We’ve got some matchup problems. Howard is one of the best players in the country. The Hausers (junior guard/forward Sam Hauser and redshirt freshman forward Joey Hauser from Stevens Point) are NBA prospects.
They’ve got some good players off the bench. Their transfer from Fordham (Joseph Chartouny) is good. They have solid role players who are playing heavy minutes. They’ve played a tough schedule and haven’t shied away from anybody. We’ve got our hands full, but we’ve been in big games before. The guys won’t come in scared. We just have to do X, Y and Z to win the game. It should be a good game.”
Oats was an assistant coach under former Duke University star Bobby Hurley when the Bulls played Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. This will be his first trip to Wisconsin with the Bulls as the head coach.
“It’s fun, coming back (near) where I grew up,” Oats said. “I didn’t pick Wisconsin or Marquette as a kid. I enjoyed watching both. I went to Marquette games and Bucks games. It will be fun to coach in front of people who haven’t seen me coach a game before.”
Oats displays a fiery disposition at times but considers himself below others on the intensity scale.
“We coach with a little emotion,” Oats said. “I’m not quite like Hurley. I’m not Brad Stevens, either. I get a little fired up. We do play at a faster pace. If (fans coming to watch Friday) are used to Wisconsin, we are a lot different than that. We had athletes (when I coached prep basketball in Detroit). That’s how I like to coach. That’s how we play now.”
The journey for Oats has been nothing short of remarkable, from his playing and assistant coaching days at the former Maranatha Baptist Bible College to assistant coaching at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, to his head coaching experience at Romulus to now leading a rising Division 1 collegiate program in Buffalo.
“I wouldn’t trade the way I got here for anything,” Oats said. “Each step provided different wisdom, knowledge and learning basics.
“At Maranatha, I got my foot in the first door and developed a love for the game under (the late Jerry Terrill, who coached at MBBC for 25 seasons and was inducted into the NCCAA Hall of Fame). He was really instrumental in me loving the game and having a chance to coach.
“Whitewater gave me an opportunity to really recruit inner city players. We recruited in Milwaukee. That was a move up from Maranatha.
“Then I got the opportunity to be a head coach at Romulus. I lived in an urban community and I had all minority student athletes. I didn’t coach any Caucasian kids. That gave me a different perspective. I learned about that community. I was right in the middle of it. I had kids living with me.
“For 11 years, that was what my life was. It helped a lot with recruiting here at this level. Those are the types of kids I have learned to coach and learned to love. We’ve been fortunate to get athletic talent like that and done really well with that.”
With success comes the speculation that Oats will soon be a prime candidate to take over a major program. But he’s more interested in building Buffalo into a perennial power over the long haul.
There’s a push by proud alumni to obtain funding so the men’s and women’s basketball programs can have their own practice facility rather than share time in a building that doubles as the student recreation center, as is currently the case.
Oats supports the idea of allocating money toward separate facilities to better serve everyone’s needs.
If that happens, Oats would like to be around to reap the benefits.
“I am already (answering) people who ask whether I am going to leave,” Oats said.
“I really ideally would like to just stay here and not have to move my family. I have a wife and three daughters. We like it here a lot. It’s more Midwestern than it is East Coast. We’re only four hours from Detroit.
“I jumped over Lake Michigan to get (from Wisconsin) to Detroit, and I jumped over Lake Erie to get to Buffalo. I am done jumping over Great Lakes. What would the next jump be? I would have to be up in Ontario. I hope we are not going to continue to move east, but it’s a crazy business sometimes.”
In a crazy coincidence, Buffalo University’s two head coaches for men’s revenue sports hail locally from Jefferson County.
Buffalo football coach Lance Liepold is a Jefferson native. He leads the Bulls into the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, against the Troy Trojans on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“Me and Lance talk all the time,” Oats said. “I send him pictures of Mullen’s Dairy when I get back home. We talk about Watertown, Jefferson, Johnson Creek … the whole area. He’s got a big bowl game coming up this weekend.”
For his part, Oats has a big homecoming holiday break coming up. He and his immediate family plan to spend Christmas back home in Watertown.
“My wife and kids are flying with the team, and we’ll stay over in Watertown after the game,” Oats said. “We’ll stay with my sister and brother-in-law. I’m doing Christmas with my family and staying through Wednesday.”
First things first. The Bulls play Marquette at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. The game can be seen on Fox Sports Channel FS1. The game will also be broadcast on 94.5 ESPN FM and 540 ESPN on the AM radio dial.