How Nate Oats & Co. kept UB's hoops juggernaut rolling

Mar 13, 2018 | by Mark Gaughan, The Buffalo News

Jeremy Harris grabbed assistant coach Bryan Hodgson in a bear hug as the buzzer sounded on the University at Buffalo's victory Saturday night in the Mid-American Conference championship game.

"The first thing he said to me is: 'This is why I came here,'" Hodgson said.

Harris, a 6-foot-7 forward from North Carolina by way of a Florida junior college, picked UB over Texas Tech of the Big 12 Conference. Any time UB beats out a Power-5 conference school for a recruit, it's a big deal.

Harris watched UB go to the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2016. He viewed the Bulls as a program on the rise that could get him to the Big Dance.

His signing was one of a string of recruiting coups UB has scored over the past five years, and he's a prime example of how UB has built on the momentum of making multiple NCAA tournaments.

The Bulls are in the NCAAs for the third time in four years. They have another big recruiting class – their highest-rated yet – on the way. If recent history is any indication, Thursday's nationally televised NCAA game against Arizona is going to help keep the recruiting ball rolling next fall and winter.

"It gives you a national stage," said UB coach Nate Oats. "Everybody knows Buffalo basketball now. . . . We've played enough games on national TV. And we've been in enough of these games and played well in them. I think it gives us a national name. It helps us recruiting. Now you get better players. We keep inching our way up to where you're finally able to crack the stone, so to speak, and get one of these wins. Hopefully it's this year."

Building on Hurley

UB's first NCAA Tournament appearance against West Virginia in March 2015 easily could have been a one-time blip on the radar once coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State a month later.

Hurley's famous name had vaulted UB to a higher level. His first big recruit, in the fall of 2013, was the No. 28-ranked point guard in the country, Lamonte Bearden out of Wisconsin.

"Absolutely no question, we don't get Bearden if we didn't have Bobby," Oats said. "And if we don't get Bearden, we're not in the first tournament. We're not where we're at now."

It wasn't obvious at the time, but Oats was well-positioned to capitalize on Hurley's two-year UB tenure.

It took former UB Athletic Director Danny White just 36 hours from the moment Hurley resigned to sign Oats as the new coach, even though Oats had just two years of college experience as Hurley's top aide.

Oats had gone 222-52 in 11 years as head coach at Romulus High School, just outside of Detroit. He was one of the top high school coaches in the state of Michigan and had a vast network of Division I college connections because he had sent 17 Romulus players to Division I programs over the previous decade.

White interviewed Oats for three hours on the night Hurley left.

Even though Oats wasn't necessarily expecting Hurley to leave after his second season, Oats already had his top two assistant-coach choices in his pocket when he sat down for that meeting with White.

A lot of first-time head coaches – no matter the sport, from the college ranks to the NFL – make the mistake of picking a best friend or long-time buddy over a more qualified assistant candidate. Oats knew that wasn't going to fly with White and wasn't the way to build on Hurley's two seasons.

Key assistant coaches

Oats, then 40, told White he could hire 56-year-old Jim Whitesell as his top aide. Whitesell had 24 years' experience as a college head coach, including seven at Division I Loyola Chicago. Plus he had served as an aide with coaching legend Rick Majerus and had just come off two years at St. John's.

"When he was the head coach at Loyola, one of his assistants, Patrick Baldwin, who's now the head coach at Milwaukee, is a good friend of mine," Oats said. "So they recruited some of my kids at Romulus and I got to know them. I know all these guys in Division I because I had so many players at Romulus."

Oats also knew he could hire Donyell Marshall, who had an illustrious 15-year NBA career and was eager to climb the coaching ranks. Marshall was working as an aide at Rider. He and Oats had spent time together at summer Five-Star Camps for high school prospects in previous years.

"Me and Danny had talked about this," Oats said. "Really I had the first two assistants set. I needed a guy with experience. I got him. With Donyell, we thought that having Bobby's name accelerated the program. I recruited off Bobby's name. Buffalo had no name to recruit to. So we needed a name. I knew Donyell from Five-Star Camp. So we got Donyell."

Marshall stayed only one year before becoming head coach at Central Connecticut. But his NBA pedigree helped UB's recruiting that season. Oats replaced him last season with Lindsay Hunter, another former NBA star who Oats knew from Hunter's time with the Pistons. He lasted only one year, too, before opting to go back to his Detroit-area home. But he helped land a prized point guard from Akron, Ohio, Jayvon Graves, who has enjoyed a strong freshman season this year.

Meanwhile, Whitesell has provided needed experience. When Oats' wife, Crystal, was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Whitesell carried the coaching load while Oats spent time out of the office. And Whitesell has been a master defensive game-planner the past three years.

The way Whitesell prepared 6-foot-8 Nick Perkins to guard 6-10, 320-pound Akron center Isaiah "Big Dog" Johnson in the MAC final two years ago was a coaching masterpiece. Johnson was held to 12 points in that game.

"When Crystal went through her cancer deal in Year One, Jim was huge for the program," Oats said. "He knew how to do everything. And he still is huge. He was at St. John's, he was at St. Louis. . . . We did the scouts different this year. He takes every single team's offense, so he's in charge of the defensive side of the scout. He's been great. You can't change your whole scheme, but you can tweak a few things game to game. And he's really good with game planning."

With veteran coaches in place, Oats still had to find a lead recruiter. A few days after getting the head job, he picked Jamestown native Bryan Hodgson, who had spent the previous two years at Midland College, a two-year school in West Texas. In the months before Hurley's departure, UB had won a recruiting battle over Maryland for Midland's Maurice O'Field, a Cleveland native who was impressed with Hurley and wanted to play closer to home.

"I needed to get a guy who was young, hungry and could recruit," Oats said. "I knew him from recruiting O'Field. Actually I knew him before O'Field, but that's where I got to know him a lot better. He came to camps where I'd been. I did think with Bobby the one thing we didn't have on our staff was we had no local presence. The fact that he was a recruiter and he's young with a ton of energy, I got comfortable with him. And he's from Western New York."

Four home runs

Hodgson immediately proved his worth.

O'Field backed out of his UB commitment and followed Hurley to Arizona State. So did another prized recruit, Torian Graham. So did star UB guard Shannon Evans. Another top recruit, Nate Navigato, switched from UB to Toledo.

All of a sudden Oats had gaping holes in his roster.

But Oats & Co. brought in five key contributors, and four of the signees were home runs.

Oats already had gone to Detroit and signed Perkins, who had played against his Romulus teams. Perkins became an immediate asset and was first-team all-MAC as a junior this year.

Hodgson recruited shooting wing Willie Conner, who had played against Midland in the Texas junior college league. Then Hodgson found big wing Blake Hamilton on a recruiting trip to Los Angeles during his first month on the job.

Hamilton and Conner gave UB two great years. Conner was MAC Tournament MVP in 2016, and Hamilton hit the winning shot to send UB to its second NCAA Tournament.

After Evans left, Oats had one scholarship left and got a tip from a coaching friend at Louisiana Tech to recruit CJ Massinburg out of Dallas. He immediately stepped into Evans' role and this year joined Perkins as first-team all-MAC.

What a haul over the span of two months. Hamilton, especially, was so good right away that UB even weathered the loss of leading scorer Justin Moss, who was kicked out of school in the fall of 2015.

"That first group of recruits, you've got to give them so much credit," Oats said.

"Bryan has done an unbelievable job," Oats said. "He got Blake and Willie both, and he got David Kadiri, who was pretty good, too. No question. And he has continued to do a great job for us."

Hodgson's junior-college connections led UB to Harris, who has seamlessly replaced Hamilton as the versatile, matchup nightmare on the wing.

Wait 'til next year

Now UB is poised to welcome its most highly touted recruiting class yet, rated first in the MAC and currently 75th in the nation by Rivals.com.

In the fall, the Bulls got commitments from Jeenathan Williams, a 6-7 forward from Rochester, Ronaldo "Rondo" Segu, a 6-foot point guard from Orlando, Fla., and 6-3 combo guard Javion Hamlet, from a junior college in Tennessee.

Williams is the top prize. He picked UB in September while holding offers from Illinois, Syracuse, Marquette, North Carolina State and Rhode Island, among about 30 others. UB was the first and only school he visited. He left Rochester to play his senior season at one of the top prep programs in the nation in California.

"I want to create my own path and pave the way for other kids in my shoes from Upstate New York," Williams said when he signed. "Coach Bryan Hodgson and coach Oats were the first staff to offer me and recruited me harder than anyone over the past three years."

"He's the most athletic wing of all of them we've had," Hodgson said, referring to Hamilton and Harris. "He brings a different dimension."

Segu picked UB over Virginia Commonwealth, New Mexico and South Florida. He's rated the 38th best point guard in the country, almost as high as Bearden.

Hamlet led the nation's junior colleges in assists last year and also considered North Texas.

UB never used to beat out VCU for a top recruit out of Florida. It's a sign of the program's rise.

"It just shows where this program and where this city is going," said Massinburg.