The University at Buffalo's CJ Massinburg has become one of the best players in Mid-American Conference basketball. He's averaging 20 points per game, good for second in the conference, and is arguably UB's best rebounder despite being a guard. UB coach Nate Oats said he recently got a call from an NBA scout about Massinburg.
One might expect Oats to say this was all part of the plan, but as he put it, "Sometimes I think it's better to be a little bit lucky in recruiting than it is to be considered great."
Plenty of factors had to go right for Massinburg to even get to UB and make the team coming out of high school.
But three years later, he is now in position to thrive on a large stage, as the Bulls visit Syracuse on Tuesday and No. 8 Texas A&M in his home state of Texas on Thursday.
The Bulls' roster was in flux after the 2014-15 season. Bobby Hurley, fresh off a trip to the NCAA Tournament, left UB to take the head job at Arizona State. Multiple players followed him to Tempe, including UB's second-leading scorer Shannon Evans. Another recruit decommitted, opting to go to Toledo instead.
By the time the spring came, UB had five open roster spots and limited time to fill them. There are two live recruiting periods in the spring, and no one for UB was out recruiting during the first because Oats was just being hired. The Bulls desperately needed players.
While on the recruiting trail, Oats got a tip that drastically improved the makeup of his early UB teams. He ran into Dusty May, then an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. The two were familiar with each other from Oats' time as a high school coach. May also worked under head coach Mike White, the brother of former UB athletic director Danny White.
"He asked if we needed anybody," Oats said, "I said, 'Yeah, we need five.'"
May mentioned Massinburg, a player Louisiana Tech had been interested in earlier in the recruiting process but decided to move on from. He was a rare available senior, so Oats sent associate head coach Jim Whitesell to see if he'd be a good fit.
It's difficult to say why Massinburg was overlooked coming out of high school. At 6-3, the physical tools where there, and he was putting up numbers in an area that produces basketball talent. The Dallas native averaged 22.3 points, six rebounds, and four assists as a senior at South Oak Cliff High School. He was named District Offensive MVP and was an all-state selection.
Oats said he has no clue why Massinburg wasn't getting more looks. Massinburg said it's because he was meant to go to UB.
He wasn't ranked by ESPN. Scout.com didn't even have a page for him.
"He was probably the least ranked guy," Whitesell said.
UB came along at a perfect time for Massinburg, who was struggling to grasp the cutthroat nature of Division I basketball recruiting. He had received interest from San Francisco, but the Dons opted for another player instead. Massinburg had no hard feelings since San Francisco told him throughout the process there was someone else the staff was also interested in. That didn't make it any easier.
"I was actually in my music class," Massinburg said. "I had seen that on Twitter, that he had committed. My sister actually sends me the tweet. I end up breaking down into tears in the classroom. Why are things not working out for me?"
Until the Bulls called, Prairie View A&M of the SWAC was Massinburg's only Division I option.
Whitesell watched four or five of Massinburg's games and was impressed by his positional versatility and his defensive ability. UB invited Massinburg to campus, and he beat out another visiting player for the Bulls' final available roster spot.
When Oats brought Massinburg on, he had no clue what to expect. He'd never seen him play in person. Oats told Massinburg he could be redshirted, but he'd give him a chance if he showed an ability to help the team.
"If I don't do what I'm supposed to do, I'll live with it," Massinburg said. "Just give me an opportunity."
Massinburg earned his way on the floor through stingy defense, a trait he now advises freshmen to hone if they want playing time. Eventually, the offense came. He scored 17 against Duke, then 36 against Ohio. The expected project started seven games, played in 35 and earned MAC All-Freshman team honors.
"I put up numbers in high school, but they really didn't expect me to put up numbers when I came here," Massinburg said. "The defense really turned into offense."
He's only improved since. As a sophomore, he was an All-MAC honorable mention, finishing second on the team with 14.5 points per game. At the start of this season, he was named an All-MAC East Preseason first-team member and was heralded as one of the main reasons UB is favored to win its division.
Now a junior, Massinburg is a polished combo guard with length, smarts and shooting and defensive ability. His length makes him difficult to guard when he's cutting to the basket. He's also hitting 47 percent of his 3-point shots and leads the Bulls with 7.8 rebounds per game. He's recorded double-doubles in three consecutive games and was named the MAC East Player of the Week on Monday for the second time in the last three weeks. He had five 20-point games in his first two seasons; he already has six this season.
With a return home this week, Massinburg understands it's easy to get sentimental and think about the journey. Instead, he said he tries to stay focused on the job at hand, but can't help but wonder what would have happened if UB had never gotten that tip about him.
"I don't know where I would be," Massinburg said.