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COMMENTARY

Mark Gaughan: Reflections on a remarkable UB basketball season

My two most memorable, can-you-believe-it moments from the University at Buffalo’s dream men’s basketball season were:

1. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim sitting in the postgame news conference after watching his team lose handily to the Bulls – in the Carrier Dome – and admitting, “They’re faster, quicker, I think they’re stronger.”

I remember thinking: Did Boeheim just say that? About UB?

2. Sitting in Alumni Arena’s end-zone stands on Jan. 4 and watching the Bulls humiliate Toledo, the second best team in the Mid-American Conference. UB was up by 38 points with 5 minutes to go before letting up on the gas and winning, 110-80.

Toledo was ranked No. 52 at the time and finished 62nd in the analytics ranking. It was an awe-inspiring display of swarming defense and ball-sharing offense, one of the most complete annihilations by a Big 4 team against a worthy foe this region has ever seen.

The Bulls’ offensive machine seized up and died just off Route 66 in Tulsa Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Two days after playing perhaps their best all-around game of the season in beating Arizona State, the Bulls ran into a meat-grinder in the form of the Texas Tech defense. It’s too bad the Bulls laid an egg, but there’s no shame in losing to the No. 9-ranked team in the nation.

UB fans now can revel in the memories from five months of fun. CJ Massinburg scoring 44 to beat then-13th-ranked West Virginia. Jayvon Graves posterizing helpless defenders from Dartmouth and West Virginia. The tic-tac-toe, fast-break dunk by Jeremy Harris at Kent State. Waiting for the Associated Press poll to come out every Monday to see where the Bulls landed. The run to an unprecedented fourth MAC title in the last five years. And on and on.

On one hand, UB fans can view with melancholy the end of the greatest season by a Big 4 team in 47 years, since the St. Bonaventure run to the Final Four in 1970.

It might be another 47 years before a Big 4 team wins 32 games in a season ... or gets ranked in the polls for 19 straight weeks.

It’s rare to graduate the Nos. 2 and 5 scorers in school history (Massinburg and Nick Perkins) in the same class. And while most winning teams have good chemistry, the unselfishness of the UB seniors was especially uncommon.

Massinburg scored 1,990 career points despite not really being a volume shooter. Perkins was willing to win three straight MAC Sixth Man of the Year awards. Jeremy Harris was the master of the extra perimeter pass that left teammates with wide open, check-the-seams 3-balls. Dontay Caruthers was a high-scoring, high school gunner who turned himself into MAC Defensive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, UB remains the power program of the MAC.

The UB administration has responded to the success of the past six years by increasing support. Nate Oats is the highest paid coach in the conference after signing his new deal, at $837,000 per year, not counting bonus money. The second-best paid MAC coach gets $650,000, and most are in the $350,000 range.

Despite the graduation losses, UB should be very good next year.

Returning guards Davonta Jordan and Graves have all-MAC ability. Graves is a worthy successor to Massinburg, both in playing ability and leadership. Antwain Johnson, a 6-foot-2-inch transfer from Middle Tennessee State who sat out this year, is a star in waiting. He’s a dead-eye shooter with a good handle.

The Bulls need 6-5 Jeenathan Williams, a top-100 recruit, to get better as a sophomore. Gabe Grant, a 6-foot-5-inch transfer from Houston, will help the frontcourt.

Then there is the recruiting class, which includes two of the top 30 junior college recruits in the country, according to Jucorecruiting.com, in 6-foot-9-inch Andre Allen and 6-foot-7-inch James Rojas.

Of course, just how long UB can keep Oats and his staff is a question that's not going away. In the wake of his extension, all evidence indicates Oats is firmly committed to UB for the next year, at the least. That would be great for UB, because with everybody back and the recruits in place, the Bulls are a top-three MAC team next year and a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat again.

At some point, you have to think Oats will find it impossible to turn down a $2.5-million-a-year job. That’s what the Big 10 pays. Oats is a Midwest guy, a Wisconsin native. He seems perfect for the Big Ten. The boost in his UB salary means he can aim high. He’s not leaving for Duquesne, like Akron’s Keith Dambrot did, or another job that’s going to pay him a little over $1 million a year.

There are no Big Ten jobs open this year.

What if there’s a domino effect? What if Texas A&M hires Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams, then Virginia Tech comes calling? Virginia Tech isn’t an easy job in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the Hokies pay $2.75 million a year.

UB fans are just going to have to live with that kind of offseason tension. It’s a good problem to have. Whenever Oats leaves, the UB job will be coveted. UB just sent its last athletic director to Auburn, for gosh sakes. UB should be able to woo many of the top assistants in the country the next time it goes looking for a coach.

This remarkable season ingrained UB basketball deeper into the psyche of both the university community and Buffalo sports fans.

It will be interesting for everyone to watch where the UB juggernaut goes.

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