TULSA, Okla. — Nate Oats didn’t need to outsmart Bobby Hurley, the person who gave him his shot as a college basketball coach, then made him his top choice as his successor.
The University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach needed to utilize a quick yet comprehensive study of the opponent. Then, the sixth-seeded Bulls steadily dissected the 11th-seeded Sun Devils for a 91-74 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at the BOK Center.
Oats was even hesitant to label what he did as “outsmarting” Hurley.
Dontay Caruthers, UB's defensive specialist, looked at it from a player's point of view.
"I don't think he really outsmarted him," Caruthers said. "Oats really focused on the stuff that we do. We always say that if we take care of the stuff that we do, on our side of the ball, it's hard for a team to beat us.
"Oats coached with (Hurley) for a very long time as his assistant. But I think it just comes down to the players and how they go out and deliver."
By emphasizing its own strengths, UB (32-3) focused its guard-dominant offense inside the perimeter and shot 64 percent (21 for 33) inside the arc.
The Bulls shut down Arizona State’s 3-point shooting, which entered at 34.2 percent. And in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Bulls forced turnovers and built their offense off transition, utilizing a 14-2 run to take a 24-16 lead, en route to a 25-2 run and a 44-31 lead at halftime.
“At this point, in March, you kind of are who you are,” Oats said.
Now, what UB is, is a program that has won first-round NCAA Tournament games in consecutive years and faces third-seeded Texas Tech on Sunday in the second round.
Leading up to the game against his former boss, Oats also gathered some outside reconnaissance on what a team in his situation should do.
He said after the win against the Sun Devils (23-11) that he reached out to coaches whose teams had been either No. 6 seeds or 11 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — coaches from Cincinnati and Florida, in particular — and asked them for some advice.
Two of the four No. 11 seeds each year end up playing only days after having won First Four games to advance.
“A couple of them told me that they got in the game and just realized, that the team that had played in Dayton (in a play-in game) just didn’t have energy,” said Oats, whose team led by as many as 25 points midway through the second half. “So, we played fast to begin with, and we really wanted to speed the tempo up on them, just to try to get into their lack of depth in the back court, and they had tired legs. It showed in their 3-point percentage.”
The Bulls negated Arizona State’s already-hampered perimeter game as guard Remy Martin has been hobbled by a groin injury he sustained March 15 in a Pac-12 semifinal.
The Sun Devils went 3 for 22 on 3-point attempts, including 0 for 9 in the first half.
“We exploited what they had,” said Nick Perkins, who led the Bulls with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and registered his fifth double-double this season. “The matchups. They’re a really big team, compared to us. We’re really a small, guard-oriented team and play four guards, one big the whole time. All (Oats) really did was just get the matchups right, and we were able to attack with our guards and cause trouble for them. That was the mismatch, definitely.”
Perkins was one of four players to score in double figures, along with Jeremy Harris (21 points), CJ Massinburg (18) and Jayvon Graves (13). Harris also had 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season.
UB had 42 rebounds to Arizona State's 26, including a 13-6 advantage on the offensive end.
“We just had to man up and stress rebounding," Oats said. "Our guys did a really good job on the glass.”
After UB took a 16-14 lead at 8:29 of the first half — the start of its 14-2 run — the closest the Sun Devils got was within nine points, at 46-37 on Rondello White’s layup 2:07 into the second half.
"It was like 14-14 and they hit one, and what we did to teams all year was out-rebound them," Hurley said. "We were one of the best rebounding teams in the country this year. They were quicker to the ball than we were in the first half and their pressure is disruptive, their guards get after you and pressure you, so they take you out of your offense."
As for Hurley facing his former hire?
Hurley, who coached UB in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, and led the Bulls to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 2015, wished Oats and the Bulls nothing but the best as they prepare to face Texas Tech (27-6), which defeated 14-seed Northern Kentucky 72-57.
After the game, the two coaches shook hands and went their separate ways, into their respective locker rooms.
But Hurley snuffed out any further discussion of the Oats versus Hurley narrative in his opening statement on the podium.
“I think the world of Nate Oats as a coach, as a person, as for what he's done for Buffalo basketball and how his personality rubbed off and how hard his team competes and plays the game,” Hurley said. “Otherwise, I'll answer any questions at this point about Buffalo, but I'm just not going to specifically talk about me and Nate Oats because this is not about us.”
After the win, Oats remained tempered about the unique matchup.
“I just tried not to look down the other way and just coach the game,” he said. “Try not to worry about coaching against a good friend. Just worry about coaching my team and our players — our players are more experienced.”
But, Oats added, “He said our kids are some of the hardest playing kids he's seen all years. He felt like there were seven guys on the floor they had to play against. We'll touch base I'm sure, here in the next few days and renew the friendship.”
Perkins, however, knew the game carried a little more emotional weight for his coach.
“I think he handled this great,” Perkins said. “You could see that it was little weird for both of them, and I know Coach Hurley a little bit but I’m close with Coach Oats, and I could tell this was a little different for him, competing against his former boss. He didn’t show emotions, he was really respectful of coach Hurley and what coach Hurley did for him.”