The University at Buffalo just kicked off its Mid-American Conference men's basketball schedule, but the team is already battle tested.
"We've pretty much seen it all," Bulls forward Nick Perkins said.
That's not an exaggeration. The Bulls faced the seventh strongest non-conference schedule in Division I basketball according to the RPI. They've gone to battle with No. 19 Cincinnati, No. 11 Texas A&M, St. Bonaventure and Syracuse.
UB hasn't shied away from big-time matchups ever since Bobby Hurley took over as coach in 2013. The Bulls traveled to Kentucky and Wisconsin under Hurley and Duke, Creighton and Xavier under current coach Nate Oats.
"I'd rather play tough teams like that and figure out where your weaknesses are than beat up on four non-Division I's like some teams in our league choose to do," Oats said.
This year, the Bulls have kept the showcase games interesting. They were up one with three minutes left against Syracuse and down four with under four minutes left against Texas A&M and Cincinnati. In the Big 4 matchup, UB was down three to the Bonnies at the 4:35 mark. In all four cases, the team came up short down the stretch.
"You learn from your mistakes," Oats said. "Tons of stuff to learn, but that's what non-conference is for."
Overall, The Bulls went 8-5 in pre-league action, the most wins they've accumulated before the MAC season since 2014-15.
The hope is the stiff competition prepared the Bulls to get through a MAC slate they're expected to excel in. UB was heavily favored to win the MAC East in the preseason coaches' poll, receiving 24 of the 30 possible first-place votes. Two Bulls, CJ Massinburg and Perkins, were named preseason first-team members.
Even though the Bulls have displayed top-notch talent, they saw Tuesday that conference wins won't come easily. Toledo, picked to finish third in the MAC West, gave UB a fight in the MAC opener. The Rockets kept up with the Bulls' hot shooting in a 104-94 UB victory.
The Bulls' big three, the big man Perkins and guard duo of Massinburg and Wes Clark, lived up to the billing. All three surpassed the 20-point mark, with Massinburg scoring 27, Clark 25 and Perkins 24.
"We've got, in my opinion, one of the best if not the best interior player in the league, probably the best perimeter player in the league and then Wes Clark ... I'm challenging him to dominate his matchup every game," Oats said. "When you've got those three guys, you've got a pretty good chance to win."
The game was closer than the final score appears. Toledo's Jaelan Sanford had a chance to cut the lead to three with just over 30 seconds remaining but missed a three-point attempt. UB hit its free throws to create a cushion.
It's a reminder the Bulls can't coast on expectations. There's a target on UB's back.
"For some reason, in this conference, everyone hates Buffalo," Massinburg said. "We always get everyone's best when they come play us."
"I found that out in high school, " Oats said. "That's what winning breeds."