There was a lot more looking forward than looking backward for the University at Buffalo Thursday after it lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.
The Bulls are loaded for next year with a capital-L.
“We’re obviously disappointed about the loss,” said freshman guard CJ Massinburg moments after the Bulls’ 79-72 defeat at the hands of 10th-ranked Miami. “But in the back of our heads, we do know that we have a lot of young players, and next year, in the next couple of years we’re still going to continue to be strong.”
“We can probably keep this thing going the next few years,” said UB freshman Nick Perkins.
UB returns its top five scorers from Mid-American Conference play. It graduates just two seniors, guard Jarryn Skeete and wingman Rodell Wigginton, neither of whom saw more than 21 minutes of action in the last three games. And coach Nate Oats has signed three high school seniors who form what looks like UB’s highest-rated men’s basketball recruiting class ever.
“You know what? I like our future a lot,” Oats said. “The recruiting class is arguably the best one we’ve brought in here to go with these guys coming back. Played 10 guys tonight. Eight of those 10 are back. A lot of scoring is back.”
UB had the most athletic roster in the MAC this year thanks partly to the addition of junior college recruits Blake Hamilton and Willie Conner. They will be seniors next season. The 6-foot-6 Hamilton averaged a team-best 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in MAC games. The 6-5 Conner averaged 12.8 points. Both are standout, versatile defenders.
Point guard Lamonte Bearden finished his sophomore season in stellar fashion, playing brilliantly in the MAC Tournament and keeping UB within upset range of Miami in the second half Thursday night. He averaged 14.2 points, second on the team.
Bearden could be a MAC player-of-the-year candidate if he improves his outside shot. He hit only 16 three-pointers for the season, but eight came in the last eight games. He’s a 77 percent free-throw shooter, so there’s no reason he can’t add it to his arsenal.
“If Lamonte can improve his outside shooting a little bit, I think he’s got a chance to play for some money after this thing is all said and done,” Oats said. Then there are the freshmen. Massinburg and Perkins were on the court down the stretch with the MAC title on the line against Akron. The 6-3 Massinburg made the MAC all-rookie team after averaging 11.6 ppg. He’s such a good defender, UB had him guarding Miami’s 6-5 star, Sheldon McClellan, who’s expected to be an NBA draft choice. The 6-8, 260-pound Perkins averaged 7.5 ppg. He started to look like a future all-MAC player the last two weeks of the season.
“Perkins has been so good in practice the last three weeks, he’s going to be a monster in this league for the next three years,” Oats said of Perkins last week. “He’s really bought into everything we asked him to do.”
The weaknesses of the UB team during the regular season were inconsistent outside shooting and the lack of consistent offense from the low post.
UB has reinforcements coming on the perimeter. Nikola Rakicevic, a 6-5 freshman from Serbia, averaged only 8.7 minutes a game. But Oats think he will be ready to contribute next season. The Bulls had a 6-5 Canadian dead-eye, Stefan Duric, sitting out this season as a redshirt. The Burlington, Ont., product had an offer from Mississippi State, along with UB. Massinburg only figures to get better behind the arc, where he ranked 14th in the MAC in three-point percentage (.418) and made 46 threes. Compare that to former UB guard Shannon Evans, who as a freshman made 32 and shot .296 and as a sophomore made 63 and shot .375.
“You guys didn’t really get a chance to see Nikola play this year,” Oats said. “I think he’s going to be really good for us in the future. He just kind of had to adjust to the American style of play, and he’ll be a lot better next year. We’ve had some conversations about what it’s going to be like for him next year.”
In the low post, Perkins should score more next season. UB will continue to work to develop 6-10 Ikenna Smart, who averaged 16 minutes and 3.3 points as a freshman this year. UB also will get back 6-10, 240-pound senior-to-be Raheem Johnson, who sat out this year with a broken foot. Johnson doesn’t score much, but he will add depth and toughness to defend the MAC’s numerous quality big men.
Then there are the recruits. UB signed 6-foot-8 Quate McKinzie, rated by ESPN as the No. 40 power forward in the nation and the No. 11 recruit in North Carolina. He’s an explosive slasher on offense and a versatile defender. He picked UB over Temple, among others. He adds to UB’s athleticism.
UB added a 6-4 athletic guard, James Jones, rated No. 11 in Illinois. He’s an athletic shooter and a perimeter defender who helped his school to the Chicago city title last month. Jones made second team Class 3A all-state in Illinois.
UB got a 7-foot center, Brock Bertram, who is rated the No. 4 prospect in Minnesota and is a finalist for Mr. Basketball in the state. Bertram picked UB over Texas Tech and Miami of Ohio. Given the return of Johnson, UB will have the luxury of bringing Bertram along slowly if it chooses to do so.
A MAC three-peat and a return to the NCAA Tournament next year is hardly a sure thing. Akron, which ranked 28th in the NCAA Ratings Percentage Index this year, figures to be strong again. But winning has become the expectation on the Amherst Campus.
“If we could have . . . played a 5 seed instead of a 3 seed, we’d have probably had a little bit better shot of pulling the upset off,” Oats said.
“That’s one thing we’ll talk about – not right now – but in the summer, in the fall,” Oats said. “If we’re going to get back to the NCAA Tournament, try to win a game or two, let’s not play a 3 seed. Let’s try to push ourselves up in that 8-9 game maybe, something a little closer than the 3 seed.”