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UB men's preview: Bulls aim at unprecedented MAC three-peat

Team: University at Buffalo.

Affiliation: Mid-American Conference.

Coach: Nate Oats (2nd year).

Last year: 20-15, 10-8 (3rd).

Alumni Arena has become an oasis from the defeatist, low-expectations sports mentality in Western New York.

The University at Buffalo men’s basketball program is on a roll. It is bidding to become the first Big 4 school to go to the NCAA Tournament three straight years since Canisius did it from 1955-57. No Mid-American Conference team ever has won three straight league titles.

Yet the Bulls are legitimate contenders for another NCAA berth.

For the second year in a row, UB is poised to smoothly overcome the loss of its leading scorer. After star Justin Moss was kicked off the team last summer, coach Nate Oats deftly transitioned to a fast-paced, perimeter-oriented attack. A good offense got even better.

This year the Bulls lost star point guard Lamonte Bearden to transfer, yet nobody on the Amherst Campus is too worried about it.

UB has the most versatile player in the Big 4 in 6-foot-6 senior forward Blake Hamilton, who hit the winning three-pointer last March to send UB to the NCAAs. It has two budding sophomore stars in 6-3 C.J. Massinburg and 6-8 Nick Perkins. Quality starting wing Willie Conner is back for his senior year. And Oats brought in what might arguably is UB’s highest-rated recruiting class ever.

“I think there’s a lot more confidence with some of the guys this year,” Oats said. “Our chemistry should be a lot better. We don’t have nearly as many new guys as last year. But we have to make sure the work ethic matches the confidence.”

Blake Hamilton is the kind of player who fills up the stat sheet. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Blake Hamilton is the kind of player who fills up the stat sheet. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Strengths: Hamilton ranked 12th in the MAC in points (13.1), seventh in rebounds (7.1), fifth in steals, 12th in field-goal percentage and 19th in assists. He’s a matchup nightmare for forwards, and he can defend multiple positions. This year, he’s going to play some point guard, too. Massinburg (11.3 ppg) is a scoring off-guard and a superb defender. He will score more this year. The 6-5 Conner (11.8 ppg) is a lock-down defender. Perkins (7.6 ppg), who scored 20 on the Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA game, has transformed his body, dropping from 267 to 255 pounds.

Look for 6-8 freshman Quate McKinzie, rated the No. 10 recruit in North Carolina, to add to the defense. He can guard all five positions. Freshman point guard Davonta Jordan, rated the No. 9 recruit in Florida and the No. 30 point guard in the nation by ESPN, helps improve the on-ball defending on the perimeter.

UB also has more low-post depth, key in the MAC, which has top big men. Ikenna Smart, a 6-10 sophomore, Raheem Johnson, a 6-10 senior back from injury, and 6-8 David Kadiri give Oats more defense and rebounding against big teams.

Issues: In replacing Bearden, UB probably will use a committee at the point with Jordan, sophomore Dontay Carruthers, Massinburg and Hamilton. The better Jordan and Carruthers play, the more Massinburg can stay at his best spot – scoring guard.

“I feel like we’re going to be fine,” Hamilton said. “Monte is a loss for us. But I feel the way guys were playing toward the end of the year -- myself, Perk, C.J., Willie –- we were a balanced team. And Davonta is really good. He’s going to have a real big freshman year. I’m not worried about that at all.”

UB can replace Bearden’s scoring and his assists. He shot only 25 percent on three-pointers. But there’s one way they may miss him. With two minutes to go in a tie game against Akron or Ohio in the MAC Tournament, Bearden could get into the lane against the opponent’s best defender and create a good shot for somebody. Will UB miss that in crunch time in March?

UB wasn’t a good three-point shooting team last year until the end of the season. It ranked 10th in the MAC at .331. James Jones, a 6-4 freshman, and 6-5 sophomore Nikola Rakicevic are shooters. It would help if one of them contributes.

Inside the numbers: In the MAC title game, UB held Akron’s star center, Isaiah Johnson, to 12 points and six rebounds. Akron averaged 78.1 ppg but was held to 61 by the Bulls. UB assistant Jim Whitesell, a 35-year coaching veteran, does a great job scouting and game-planning. He’s a secret weapon on Oats’ staff.

Nate Oats has the Bulls gunning for a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Nate Oats has the Bulls gunning for a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Schedule: Big games include Nov. 14 at Xavier, Dec. 7 at Pittsburgh and Dec. 3 at Bona. Ohio visits Jan. 10 and Akron visits Feb. 25. Akron and Ohio both return almost everyone and both were picked ahead of UB in the MAC East. UB was the No. 3 seed with a 10-8 MAC record last year. The MAC is so tight, it detracts from any team’s ability to earn an at-large NCAA bid.

“We’ve talked to our guys about how slim the margin of error is,” Oats said. “Even last year, it’s not like we dominated the league. We were a 3 seed. We played well at the right time. The difference between a 3 seed and a 9 seed was like two games.”

Outlook: Look for an 18-11 regular-season record, an 11-7 MAC record and a virtual dead heat among UB, Akron and Ohio going into the MAC Tournament.

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