DAYTON, Ohio – Back in December, in the first home game Arizona State played after beating No. 2 Kansas and opening the season with nine straight victories, Bobby Hurley flashed back his second year of coaching UB when he walked into Alumni Arena for a game against Kent State.
"It was the 'Blackout Game,' " Hurley said Tuesday while his team prepared for a First Four game against Syracuse. "When I first got there, the crowds were just OK. That game, I walked out and the whole building was full. I still get chills remembering that game. It was on ESPNU. There wasn't an empty seat. I said, 'Wow, look at the transformation.' It was the same thing this year."
Hurley coached only two seasons in Buffalo but left a lasting impression on the program. Sure, he piggybacked on several players who arrived under Reggie Witherspoon. But he took UB to unprecedented heights in guiding the Bulls to the Big Dance for the first time before his messy departure.
If you remember, he left for Arizona State and took sophomore guard Shannon Evans with him a few weeks after UB lost to West Virginia. Three years later, both still relish their time in Buffalo and cheer for the Bulls from afar while remaining in contact with people involved in the program.
Last weekend, Evans even wore his old UB uniform while watching on television as Buffalo beat Toledo for the Mid-American Conference title. He helped convince CJ Massinburg to play for Buffalo. He also played host to Nick Perkins when the Bulls' big man visited the Amherst campus as a senior in high school.
"It was amazing," Evans said. "Those are memories I won't forget. People take it different ways, but we know what we did there and the impact we had. I'm rooting for those guys. I love that school and that town. My two years, they showed me a lot of love, and I had a lot of fun. It was the best experience of my life."
Hurley established himself as a good head coach and sound recruiter in Buffalo, and he left the cupboards full when Nate Oats took over. Oats, the chief recruiter for Hurley, would be the first to say, as he has numerous times, that selling Buffalo was much easier because he had Hurley's name behind him.
Oats made a smooth transition into the top job in part because UB had so much talent. He has since proven to be a terrific Division I coach and a great fit for UB.
Yes, winning breeds winning.
Buffalo became an attractive destination for players who believed they could make an immediate impact at the mid-major level. The Bulls returned to the NCAAs in Oats' first season. UB dominated the MAC this season, is back for the third time in four seasons and is expected to be even better next season.
"I've got great memories there," Hurley said. "For me, that Buffalo year will go down as one of the best of my basketball life. It's still very clear, those moments of winning the MAC championship and seeing the guys. I feel good about that, but Nate has taken it to a different level with how he's recruited and the program he's built."
Say what you will about Hurley, but he helped turn UB into a perennial winner. Yes, he was stubborn. And he had a short fuse during games. But you're not going to find many who had more success in college basketball than he did and remained so grounded away from the court. His calm persona contradicts his coaching style.
"He's one of my best friends," Evans said. "I trust him."
Hurley initially planned to remain Buffalo for two more years, but he wanted to be the highest-paid coach in the conference after boosting attendance and taking UB to the Big Dance. Former athletic director Danny White offered him $651,000 – or $1,000 per season more than the highest-paid coach at the time.
White came off looking petty and immature with the offer, and he pouted behind the scenes after Hurley had an interview with DePaul. Their relationship became strained, communication broke down and White failed to lock Hurley into a contract extension before the 2015 Final Four.
Sure enough, UB's worst fears were realized. Hurley made contact with Arizona State during the Final Four and soon after received a multiyear contract offer worth about $1.8 million per season. In no time, Hurley was gone. White made the wise move and hired Oats in an effort to keep the team intact.
Evans, an electric player initially recruited by Witherspoon who made an instant connection with Hurley, announced he was leaving UB. White at first refused to grant him his release, inviting more criticism, before relenting. Evans, now a 23-year-old senior, averaged 16.6 points per game for Arizona State this season.
"Shannon and I are like an old married couple at this point," Hurley said. "I'm more critical of him than anybody. I hold him to such a high standard, but he set the tone for me. He talked to our players immediately in workouts and showed guys how hard they needed to train. It was very valuable to have him around."
Arizona State had reached the NCAAs only three times since 1995-96 when Hurley took over 20 years later. The Sun Devils did not play in the tournament the first two seasons before storming out of the gates this year. Never mind the First Four. They were in the First Four in the country after starting the season 12-0.
Arizona State was the third-ranked team in the country in December before tumbling through the Pac-12. They finished eighth in the conference with an 8-10 record and fell out of the Top 25 before being invited into the play-in game as a No. 11 seed. Buffalo grabbed the 13th seed and will ASU's chief rival, Arizona.
Looking back, everything worked out.
"I'm proud I got the ball rolling, I guess," he said. "The program had been close a couple of times but didn't have the NCAA Tournament appearance. I remember what that did for the whole city. People were so excited about us playing. I'm glad we did that, and Nate just built on it. Buffalo is a program people take seriously."