Nate Oats heard the rumblings after he was hired, how the consensus pointed toward UB basketball stepping back toward irrelevance this season. He figured it was only natural after he replaced Bobby Hurley, a big-name coach who produced big-time results and put the program on the national radar.
The Bulls reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history last season after storming through the Mid-American Conference and winning the conference tournament. Some even wondered if Hurley’s reputation was enough for an at-large bid in the event UB didn’t win its league tourney.
You know what happened after the season. Hurley planned to return to Buffalo despite drawing interest from schools in power conferences. He changed his mind after his relationship with Danny White quickly turned sour, prompting Hurley to split for a better job and more money at Arizona State.
In no time, the same UB team that captured the local fan base and was considered a rising program nationally suddenly lost the name and face of the program. A few weeks later, the Bulls also lost a starting guard and part of their soul when White reluctantly granted Shannon Evans his release to join Hurley.
As if that wasn’t enough, a few months later UB lost reigning conference Player of the Year Justin Moss, who was dismissed by the university for stealing money from dormitory rooms. Talk about a vacuum. You could feel the energy being sucked out of the program before Oats held his first practice.
You know who wasn’t worried?
“I knew we would be all right,” Oats said after practice Wednesday in Alumni Arena. “I knew we had some good players here even if the people around here didn’t know. But I can understand. Hurley had a big name. He did do a good job. I helped him do a good job. The whole staff did. But I was pretty confident I could coach.”
You know who else had little doubt?
Bobby Hurley, who hoped his top assistant would replace him. He knew Oats had the acumen and temperament to be a head coach. Oats had more head-coaching experience than Hurley when you count 274 games over 11 years at national powerhouse Romulus High in Detroit.
Oats’ game experience has been evident this year. He’s quick to identify strengths and weaknesses and make adjustments on the fly. He appreciates the incremental improvement that comes with practice. He knows how to manage players because he understands people. He values trust coming from both sides.
“I’m happy for him,” Hurley said by telephone from Phoenix. “I know how hard he works. I know how much knowledge he has of the game. He’s a student of the game. He had a voice in practice with the players, and they respected him. I don’t think the transition was that extreme because he had been a head coach.”
Oats has shown he can coach in short order. The Bulls are 7-4 in the conference and would be the No. 2 seed in the conference tourney if the season ended today. Two of their conference losses were by four or fewer points, including a 71-69 defeat to Toledo on their home floor Tuesday night without suspended point guard Lamonte Bearden.
UB’s record in the MAC already looks like an achievement. Many would have predicted the Bulls to have the opposite record or worse at this stage, especially with Raheem Johnson sidelined for the year. Oats has pushed the right buttons, and UB’s tempo, and is overachieving with a young team. He’ll play three freshmen at the same time. The program remains in capable hands.
Success isn’t always measured by win-loss records but how much adversity a coach and his team were forced to overcome. The exodus of talent was one thing, but the difficulties that come with life was quite another. The program has been hit with so many right crosses that it’s begging for a left hook.
Oats has been coaching while his wife, Crystal, undergoes aggressive treatment for leukemia while waiting for a bone-marrow transplant. Veteran assistant coach Jim Whitesell, who was watching over the program in Oats’ absence, lost his brother, actor-director Sean Whitesell, to a brain tumor three days after Christmas.
On Sunday, Oats was watching the Super Bowl with his family when his cellphone rang. It was freshman swingman Nikola Rakevic, who was in tears while explaining his mother died unexpectedly in Serbia. The next day, Oats suspended Bearden for three games for reportedly smoking pot.
Good heavens, what’s next?
“You talk about getting hit and hit and hit,” said Allen Greene, who replaced White as athletic director. “Nate and Jim and the staff, they’ve been taking lumps the whole time. For them to make the progress that they’ve been able to make, in my mind it’s incredible. It speaks to the resiliency of him and his staff. It tells us, when he can concentrate on coaching full-time, just how good we’re going to be.”
If Oats has learned anything, it’s that life continues. Coaches and players come and go, but the program can remain strong if the right people are in place. The coaching staff includes former NBA first-round picks Donyell Marshall and Julius Hodge, who contribute to maintaining UB’s success.
It all starts with the head coach, who has placed his stamp on the program. Oats was considered a bulldog recruiter as an assistant coach, a job made easier when he had Hurley’s name behind him. Any coach would agree the best sales pitch is winning. The record show Oats can stand on his own as a coach.
UB is still relevant, and the word is getting around.
“Shoot, I recruited to Bobby Hurley hard here,” Oats said. “You figure out what you can sell. What we have to sell is the program, going to the NCAA Tournament, our RPI, who we’re going to play and that stuff. We’re getting there. Even now, we’ve got this thing rolling.”