CJ Massinburg still remembers the sick feeling in his stomach last spring while sitting in his high school English class. He was awaiting a scholarship offer from the University of San Francisco when a friend sent him a screen shot showing a picture of the Dons’ final recruit.
Massinburg buried his head in his hands and slumped into his chair. His last door to Division I basketball had been slammed in his face. Right there, right then, hard enough for his classmates to hear and the teacher to notice and stop the class, the 6-foot-3 guard broke down in tears.
“My teacher was asking me, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ ” Massinburg said. “Man, I couldn’t even explain it.”
Really, how could you explain it?
Massinburg averaged 22.3 points, six rebounds and four assists per game while leading South Oak Cliff High in Dallas to a 30-5 record. He was named the most valuable player in his district. He was all-area, all-state, all-everything. And yet somehow last May, he was all-nowhere.
The next day, UB assistant coach Jim Whitesell called and introduced himself. He muttered something about being the defending Mid-American Conference champions and mentioned the Bulls making the NCAA Tournament. Massinburg politely listened while repeatedly asking himself one question.
“What’s Buffalo?” Massinburg said. “I didn’t even know where Buffalo was. Why is Buffalo calling me? It went from there. He said it was in New York. I was like, ‘Man, that’s really far. I never thought I would be in New York.”
Well, that made two of them. The Bulls never expected Massinburg to land in Buffalo, either. He wasn’t on their radar until UB coach Nate Oats heard about him through a coaching friend at Louisiana Tech. UB invited him for a visit, made no promises about playing time and handed him a scholarship.
UB signed him for his defense and – whaddya know – they added another scorer. Massinburg is an electric guard and dangerous weapon for their return to the NCAA Tournament. He filled a major void left behind when Shannon Evans left with Bobby Hurley for Arizona State.
Massinburg actually has been a more productive scorer and rebounder than Evans was as a freshman. Massinburg is averaging 11.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. He needs one more steal to catch Evans in that department. He’s shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, which was better than Evans when he left.
Ultimately, it worked out the way it should, as it often does.
“I believe that, yeah,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is the spot that I’m supposed to be in. People go through things in life that are going to make them stronger. I believe that was a test for me and my faith. It’s going to help me become a better person.”
How do you explain it?
They say good players no longer slip through the cracks of recruiting with so much basketball being played on so many levels before so many scouts. But you can examine any program and find hits and misses in recruiting. Coaches don’t always get it right, and sometimes they couldn’t be more wrong.
The risk and reward that comes with college recruiting comes down to projecting potential. Certain coaches adhere to measurable qualities, such as and size and speed. Others take chances on kids based on the eye test. The best recruiters find intangibles that take them beyond typical scouting reports.
It comes down to trust. Whitesell is a basketball lifer who has a keen eye for talent, the ideal consigliere for Oats. He liked something in Massinburg, a good kid and former choirboy who plays piano, guitar and drums. UB stumbled into a versatile player who understands how to keep the game in perspective.
“It’s peaceful,” Massinburg said of the piano. “I put in a lot of work on the basketball court, but some days you just need to get away from basketball. It really calms me down.”
Nobody knew how hard he would work. The recruiting nightmare gave him a competitive chip on his shoulder when he arrived in Buffalo. Determined to make an impact and show other schools they made a mistake, he took so many practice shots earlier in the season that he needed tape to support a sore elbow.
He also took advantage of an opportunity that might not have existed elsewhere. UB needed help on the perimeter, a glaring weakness during the nonconference portion of the schedule. Massinburg blossomed the way he had expected last year while watching others accept scholarships before him.
The lack of consistency often is the biggest issue for freshmen, and that’s no different here. Massinburg scored 12 points and missed eight of 10 shots in consecutive late-season losses to Ohio and Miami (Ohio). But when this kid gets into a rhythm, and his confidence soars, the basket looks the size of a swimming pool.
And, man, can he light up a scoreboard.
It was apparent from the start when he scored 19 points in 21 minutes against Pitt-Bradford in his college debut. But that was Pitt-Bradford. When he scored 17 points in 21 minutes in a loss to Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, it became apparent that the Bulls had something special.
Only three times in his last 14 games has he failed to score in double figures, including the late-season pothole. Along the way, he torched Ohio for 36 points in 29 minutes in their first meeting. He validated that performance with 21 points twice in the next three games.
Let’s not forget the MAC Tournament championship game, when he took over in the first half. He scored 10 points in a 3½-minute stretch, had 15 points at intermission and finished the game with 18. Suddenly, the same kid who took an unexpected route to Buffalo was headed to the NCAA Tournament.
San Francisco went 15-15 this season and fired coach Rex Walters last week. Now, the Dons can see what they missed by turning on the TV.
“It’s crazy,” Massinburg said. “I’m not going to say anything bad about them. I just know that I’m blessed.”