When then-sophomore Nick Perkins was ejected from a 74-72 loss to Ohio in January of 2017, the University at Buffalo men's basketball coaching staff contacted Chris Pope, Perkins' former basketball coach at Milan (Mich.) High School, and asked for help.
Pope got on the horn with Perkins and Latin Davis, Perkins’ best friend since the sixth grade. It wasn’t necessarily an intervention, but it was the quick organization of a three-person support group that talked on the phone every Thursday for a year.
Pope and Davis helped Perkins, who is affable away from the basketball court, realize the value of his composure on the court. In order to be a great player and a great teammate, he had to control his emotions and channel his anger, frustration, and even elation into something positive that would benefit him and the Bulls.
Sometimes that meant Perkins had to apologize to his teammates. Other times, it meant he had to walk away from an opponent or a referee and bite his tongue, willing himself not to start an argument that, ultimately, would be inconsequential. Sometimes, it even meant asking for help.
“It’s had its ups and downs,” said Perkins, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who has averaged 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. “Just being who I am, off the court, I’m a chill guy, but on the court, I’m a really intense guy, and I’m very competitive. So, over the years, I’ve learned my fair share of what’s bad and what’s good.
“My focus, and being able to do the right thing when things don’t go your way, that’s brought me a long way.”
The No. 1-seeded Bulls (28-3) open the MAC Tournament at noon Thursday in Cleveland against No. 8 seed Akron. Perkins’ personal growth and his contributions off the bench as a three-time MAC Sixth Man of the Year have been a major factor in helping UB pursue its fourth NCAA Tournament berth since 2015.
“I don’t think that if Nick matures at the level that he has, that we’re even close to where we are right now,” UB coach Nate Oats said.
Becoming the sixth man
Perkins started 22 games in his first two seasons at UB, but Oats noticed how Perkins was eager. Sometimes, too eager. Perkins made mistakes, or committed early fouls that limited his playing time later in the game.
Oats and his staff figured out how to make Perkins his most effective: turn him into the first player off the bench. The sixth man.
Perkins usually watches the first few minutes of the game from the bench, and enters the game during the fourth or fifth minute. He brings an edge to the team when he steps onto the court.
In an 80-57 win against Kent State on Feb. 22, Perkins boosted an offense that, at one point, moved at a snail's crawl. The Bulls had scored 10 points in the first 9:32, and were on pace to finish with around 40 points, an uncharacteristically low total for a team that leads the MAC in scoring offense (85 points per game).
UB guard CJ Massinburg recalled how, a few minutes after Perkins entered the game and immediately told his teammates on the floor that "we've got to pick up the pace here."
"That's not like us, because we're a team that picks up a lot of points," Massinburg said. "He let us know that we needed to do a better job of that."
Then, in the final 1:15 of the first half, Perkins sparked a 10-point swing in which he scored eight of his game-high 27 points.
“At the beginning of the game, everybody can be a little eager and excited, but he gets to see how the other team is playing, how we’re playing and what he has to do,” Massinburg said of Perkins. “Every time he checks in, he gives us some kind of insight from what he sees, off the bench.”
Perkins’ maturation and unselfishness on the floor have stood out to Massinburg.
“His first couple years, he’d shoot it, no matter what happens,” Massinburg said. “But now, one thing it does for him, it opens up the floor. If we’re hitting open threes off his passes, then the double-team can’t come anymore and now he knows he can get his shots off.”
But Perkins’ fiery nature has also burned the Bulls.
Perkins admits he wears his heart on his sleeve, but he reached a point during his sophomore year where his emotions began to affect his performance, and, by extension, his team.
That ejection against Ohio became the tipping point for Perkins, for the Bulls and for people close to him. Pope said Oats and former UB assistant Lindsey Hunter reached out to him and asked him to speak with Perkins.
Then Pope and Davis called Perkins. And they called Perkins again. And again. And again. Every Thursday for more than a year.
“Coach Pope, he’s always been on both of us, but it was because he wanted to see us grow as better people, not just as players,” Davis said. “He always stayed on Nick more because he knew Nick had a temper, since we were in middle school.
“But coach Pope, myself, other coaches, they did such a good job of helping Nick keep his emotions down, and he’s improved so much.”
Knowing the competitive nature of his former player, Pope set some constructive boundaries and guidelines for Perkins in those conversations.
“I tell him, ‘Tell people if you’re having a bad day. Tell Coach Oats if you’re not feeling right, or tell someone if you’re upset,’ ” Pope said.
“It’s a balancing act for him, and I tell him all the time, ‘I get it.’ But I also tell him, ‘These are things along your journey that you will have to deal with, and you have to deal with it now, rather than when you have the biggest obstacles in front of you.’ ”
That support gave Perkins the motivation to behave and to ask for help.
He meets once a week with Arnie Guin, a mental skills coach who works with the Bulls, to identify things that may trigger him, or to walk through problem-solving scenarios. And, like Pope encouraged him, Perkins tells people exactly how he’s feeling.
“People have problems, and they don’t want help,” Oats said. “Nick sees a problem, he wants help and he welcomes people talking to him, and he’ll talk about it.
“We all make mistakes, and nobody’s perfect, but Nick makes a mistake and he handles it well after, so I’ve got a lot of respect for him, that way. He’s always been good at recognizing his wrongs, but it’s gone from more, ‘I’m sorry I’m being punished,’ to ‘I’m sorry I’m acting this way, because I know this is not how I want to act or how I should act.’ It’s more, ‘I really want to change now.’ ”
Perkins remembers how he used to behave when things didn’t go the way he wanted on the basketball court. Now, instead of raising his voice, lashing out at an official or throwing a tantrum, Perkins has found ways to handle his emotions.
“It’s a struggle that he’s had, but one thing he does, he asks for help,” Massinburg said. “He says to us, ‘Hey, if I ever get riled up, come talk to me, and ask me to press pause, to relax a little bit.’
“He’s not only making us a better basketball team. He’s making himself a better person, and he’s also building good habits for the future.”
Controlling the fire
The fire is there for Perkins, but it’s a matter of keeping it in the fireplace as opposed to letting the flames get out of control.
“We want fire in you,” Oats said. “Just direct it in the right direction.”
Sometimes, Perkins’ emotions still get the better of him. In a 77-64 win against Akron on Feb. 26, he was called for a technical foul following a scuffle after the whistle. Earlier this season, he was benched in the first half of a 90-76 win against Central Michigan for a violation of team rules, and watched as his team trailed by 18 points in the first half.
Oats called it “a small, minor violation” after the win against the Chippewas. Without acknowledging the reason for his benching, Perkins said he understood why.
He also said he handled the benching a month ago differently than he would have two years ago.
“I would have been really immature about it,” Perkins said. “When I got in, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my mental composure and actually play. When it happened a few weeks ago, I was able to just play through it and be the leader that we need, knowing that I was going to have to come in and help us out in the second half, to get the win.”
The Thursday conversations with Pope and Latin Davis have run their course, but Pope reaches out to Perkins on a weekly basis, mostly by text message. His notes are more than just a few characters.
“I let him do his thing, but I’m still critiquing him as a basketball player, and telling him to stay hungry, to stay humble," Pope said. "And to keep grinding. There’s a lot more out there for Nick.”
Perkins probably couldn’t have recognized those boundaries, or reached this point without help from Pope and Davis.
“When we were younger, Nick always wanted to get riled up, and he’d want to fight or do something like that, but he was never a bad person,” Davis said. “His emotions came out and always got the best of him.
“But to see that he’s controlling it, putting it all together and growing as a person, that’s such a good thing.”