Bryan Hodgson could not believe his eyes.
He had been hired by Nate Oats a week before as a new assistant basketball coach at the University at Buffalo.
It was the last week of April – late in the recruiting season. UB was in dire need of an athletic wing player to enhance its defense. If that player could bring some scoring ability, all the better, because Bulls No. 2 scorer Shannon Evans had just announced his transfer to Arizona State.
Hodgson’s first recruiting trip was to Los Angeles to watch a two-day event for junior college, prep school and high school players who still were unsigned.
“I went out there blind because it’s an ‘availables’ event, for guys unsigned, playing for a scholarship,” Hodgson said. “So you never know who’s going to be there.”
“I’m watching this 6-6 kid bringing the ball up the floor, hitting jump shots, taking guys off the dribble,” Hodgson said. “I’m thinking, ‘this is crazy.’ He stood out because he was so versatile, and there were talented kids there. One kid, Emmanuel Malou, signed with Iowa State. I’m thinking this kid must have a bunch of offers.”
The player was Blake Hamilton. He had no offers. Hodgson called Oats.
“I said ‘Nate, we’ve got to scholarship this kid. This kid is the deal. I’m telling you, the kid is 6-6, he can handle the ball, he can shoot it.’”
Fast forward 11 months. Hamilton is the critical piece of the new roster Oats put together that sent UB to its second straight NCAA Tournament.
Hamilton is the catalyst, the stir that mixes the drink, the Swiss Army knife of the UB team. In Mid-American Conference play, Hamilton ranked 12th in points, seventh in rebounds, fifth in steals, 18th in assists, 19th in blocks and 21st in three-pointers.
He hit the biggest shot in the history of UB basketball, the three-pointer with 2 seconds to go against Akron that gave UB its second-straight MAC title.
“He is the spark for those guys,” said Bowling Green coach Michael Huger. “He plays hard, rebounds. He hits threes. He does it all.”
Where would UB be without Hamilton? Not in the NCAA Tournament, that’s for sure.
It’s no surprise Hamilton is a Division I talent. His father, Kevin, is 6-8 and starred at Texas-El Paso in the mid-’80s for legendary coach Don Haskins. His mother, Jamie, is 6 feet tall. He has a bunch of gifted cousins: Gary Hamilton plays pro ball in Japan; Jordan Hamilton was a first-round NBA draft pick in 2011 and now is in the NBA’s D-League; Daniel Hamilton plays at UConn; Isaac Hamilton plays for UCLA. Blake’s younger brother, Bryce, is a 10th grader who already has a scholarship offer from Boise State.
There were plenty of hellaciously competitive Hamilton family pickup games when the clan was growing up in the Pasadena, Calif., area.
“We grew up with each other, my cousins,” Blake said. “We always played each other in the backyard. It was super competitive. There were some fights in the backyard.”
Blake was only 5-8 when he started high school and didn’t hit his growth spurt until his junior year, when he rose to 6-4.
“He wasn’t tall and he wasn’t forced to play a forward or center position, so he had to learn how to ball-handle,” Kevin Hamilton said. “Now that he’s 6-6, his ball-handling skills are so much more of an asset to him. He’s been doing it all his life. That was definitely the best recipe for him to develop into a versatile player.”
Kevin Hamilton knew his son was going to be good even in middle school. He started to think his son would be a star by the time Blake was a high school senior.
“They were in the playoffs his senior year trying to get to the state championship, and he made a steal around half court,” Kevin Hamilton said. “He must have jumped from the free-throw line. And with his long arms, he dunked so hard on this kid who was trying to block the shot. I had never seen him do that. It was so aggressive, and it was so next-level. I said to myself: ‘There we go.’”
The road to UB
Hamilton accepted a college scholarship from Northern Arizona over Hawaii, New Mexico State and Cal-Northridge. It didn’t work out. He didn’t seem to fit the coach’s style and he wasn’t happy. He left Northern Arizona after one season.
“We didn’t see eye to eye with certain things,” Hamilton said. “I guess my game didn’t fit the way he wanted me to play. They encouraged me to leave, I’m not going to lie.”
Hamilton transferred to one of the top California junior college programs, Mount San Antonio. The team was loaded, so Hamilton put up good but not phenomenal numbers, 13 points and six rebounds a game.
But the California junior colleges are separate from the rest of the country. They don’t participate in the annual national junior college tournament in Kansas, which draws hundreds of Division I recruiters.
“It seems that because the California Juco kids are out West, kind of isolated, a lot of the guys don’t go out there during the year to recruit,” said Brad Winton, who runs JucoRecruiting.com and the showcase event where UB’s Hodgson saw Hamilton. “They kind of get lost in the shuffle as the year goes on.”
As a result of his play at Winton’s Los Angeles event, Hamilton got a bunch of offers. He narrowed them down to Buffalo and Fordham of the Atlantic 10 Conference. UB’s success from last season paid dividends.
“I saw Buffalo play Kentucky, and then I saw them play in the NCAA tournament,” Hamilton said. “I thought I can’t pass up an opportunity to play for a team that just went to the tournament. They’re going to have some momentum for next year.”
Hamilton had gained maturity, too. He wasn’t worried about traveling across the country. He’s a good student. He had a 3.25 grade-point average in junior college, and he earned a 3.0 in the fall at UB. After the Northern Arizona experience, he was more concerned about fit than location.
“Coach Oats is easy to recruit for because of the way he wants to play,” Hodgson said. “Kids want to get up and down the court now. They want to play in an open offense, and that’s what Nate does.”
“That’s something I’m most happy about, the way coach Oats has allowed him to play,” said Kevin Hamilton. “He’s able to rebound, pass, bring the ball up, shoot and create. They haven’t tried to pull the reins on him.”
Down the stretch of the season, Hamilton has been at his best. Over the last eight games, he has averaged 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 steals a game.
“Hamilton to me is the guy who really makes the engine go for them because he plays the 4 for them,” said Ball State coach James Whitford, referring to the power forward spot. “And he’s a really difficult matchup at that position.”
With the game on the line in the MAC championship against Akron, Hamilton hit a difficult three-pointer from the corner with 1:36 to tie it, 61-61. Then he made the three from the high-wing that won it, 64-61.
“All year we’ve been in tight games and he wants the ball in his hands,” Hodgson said. “He’s just waiting for it to come to him so he can take the shot. That takes a special kid.”
“You always dream of something like that, and when it happens it’s incredible,” Hamilton said. “It’s a surreal feeling.”