Two men's college basketball teams and one women's squad from Western New York are participating in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. St. Bonaventure must win a "First Four" play-in game Tuesday evening to join the main bracket. The University at Buffalo men's basketball team will appear in their third tournament in four years and hope this time and, Monday evening, the UB women found out they, too, will be heading to the postseason dance.
The Bulls men's team, along with cheerleaders and band members, arrived at Prior Aviation Monday afternoon to board chartered flights to Boise, Idaho, where the University at Buffalo will face Arizona in the first round on Thursday.
"It just shows what this program and where the city is going," said junior CJ Massinburg. "It's on the rise since (Bobby) Hurley got here and it's been going up. Nate Oats got here, it just shows what kind of dynasty we're creating here in Buffalo."
Hurley, a former standout player and teammate of Angola, New York native Christian Laettner during Duke University's championship years of the early 1990s, coached the Bulls to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015 but then left to take the head coaching job at Arizona State. Oats, who succeeded Hurley, led the team back to the tournament the following year and will lead them again this week.
"Everybody knows Buffalo basketball now. Before, when I first got here, you'd call them and someone might ask if it's Division One," Oats said about the rise of the program. "We don't have that issue anymore. We played enough games on national TV and been in enough of these games and played well against them. It gives us a national name and helps with recruiting. You get better players now."
UB's first appearances in the NCAA Tournament ended with opening-round losses, 68-62 to West Virginia in 2015 and then 79-72 to Miami the following year. The team acknowledged Arizona's advantage with larger players, but both Oats and Massinburg believe the Bulls have the edge in roster depth. Massinburg also noted that the Wildcats are favored, taking some pressure off his squad.
"We're going to go in there feeling like we have nothing to lose," he said. "They're the ones that have all the pressure on them because they're expected to win."
But the Bulls had a strong season in their own right, posting an overall record of 28 wins and 6 losses, including a 15-3 regular season record in the Mid-American Conference. The Bulls lost only once at home. They also earned an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament by winning the MAC Tournament last weekend.
Oats spoke of the support the team has received from the community and shared the story of an unexpected phone message that awaited him after he reviewed game videos with his players. It was from Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott.
"I don't know how he got my number but he's a great guy," said Oats, who explained that his agent represents clients in the National Football League and knew McDermott. "He told me to tell the team the Bills are pulling for them."
Oats joked that he was wondering if McDermott was going to coach his team because during the televised announcement of the NCAA Men's Tourament Bracket last weekend, the University at Buffalo Bulls were mistakenly identified as the "Bills."
The St. Bonaventure Bonnies, meanwhile, are appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, when they won the Atlantic 10 Conference championship to earn an automatic berth. They fell to Florida State, 66-63, in the second round.
Led by head coach Mark Schmidt, this will be the sixth time in the history of the St. Bonaventure men's basketball program that they'll appear at the NCAA Tournament.
The UB women's basketball team, meanwhile, learned Monday evening that despite a heartbreaking loss in the Mid-American Conference championship game, they have regular season results good enough to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Women's Tournament. UB will face South Florida in the opening round Saturday afternoon.
The women's squad, coached by Felisha Legette-Jack, finished the regular season in first place in the MAC East, but lost to Central Michigan in the title game of the conference's postseason tournament. They finished with a record of 27-5 (including a 16-2 record in the MAC) and went undefeated at home in Alumni Arena.
University at Buffalo women's basketball has appeared once before in the NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round to Ohio State, 88-69, in 2016.