The blue-collar Buffalo basketball team bolstered its bling collection to help ring in a new year.
Before the championship banners are unfurled at Alumni Arena and the Bulls tip-off the regular season against Dartmouth on Friday night, returning players, coaches and support staff from the best season in a school history received their resplendent mementos at the end of Thursday’s practice.
More than a handful of championship rings will be shipped to departed teammates, one for each of the five seniors who elevated UB basketball to unprecedented excellence by winning three Mid-American Conference titles in four years, advancing to the second round in consecutive NCAA tournaments and spending the entirety of last season ranked in the AP Top 25.
Not to mention Nate Oats, the coach who came out of high school to turn UB into a premier mid-major program and an exciting brand of high-scoring, hard-hat wearing ballers. Oats and a number of his assistants have since departed to SEC country to try and revive Alabama basketball.
Jim Whitesell, a trusted associate of Oats with decades of head coaching experience has taken leadership of the program. Whitesell played an integral part in UB’s 96-33 record over the past four seasons and his familiarity with the returning players makes this a rather turnkey coaching transition.
The Bulls also retained some roster continuity, despite needing to replace five of their top seven rotation players. This includes MAC Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American CJ Massinburg, along with all-conference performers Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and Dontay Caruthers.
UB brings back the MAC defensive player of the year in senior point guard Davonta Jordan and preseason all-MAC selection Jayvon Graves. Bolstering the lineup with those two returning starters are a mix of old and new faces.
Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu, two of the top-rated recruits UB has ever landed, are primed to break out in expanded roles as sophomores. Their production off the bench may have been inconsistent in their debut seasons, but the athletic potential was apparent and experience in a winning culture should pay dividends with increased floor time.
Antwain Johnson — a starter for Middle Tennessee’s NCAA tournament team two years ago — and Gabe Grant — a transfer from Houston — inject experience and leadership into the rotation. Johnson could be the Bulls’ best pure scorer and Grant offers a versatile skillset suited for his sixth man position. They’ve both been around the college basketball circuit and got an up-close look at what made UB so successful last season.
The duo’s senior stature and time served on the sideline will also help replenish the Bulls’ desire to cut down the nets again in March.
“They’ve been sitting out a whole year watching a great team have a championship season and they have a huge chip on their shoulder,” Jordan said. “It’s like they’ve been in a cage for a whole year and they are ready to get out and rumble.”
Along with starting center Brock Bertram, a redshirt junior, Whitesell can go seven deep with players returning from last season, albeit most all playing new roles.
Further fortifying the frontline are transfer additions Josh Mballa (Texas Tech) and Laquill Hardnett (Cincinnati), two agile and quick-leaping big men capable of playing multiple positions, along with David Nickellberry, a top-rated junior college transfer who spent his freshman season at Memphis.
Those 10 players can fill Whitesell’s whiteboard with lineup combinations, without having to rely on true freshmen David Skogman and Savion Gallion to contribute before they are ready. And once football season is over, UB receiver Dominic Johnson will add to the Bulls’ forward reserves.
“We have the same standards that we want to achieve,” Graves said. “We have the talent and once we put it all together, we’ll contend.”
It can be difficult to determine if UB is a program on the rise, on the decline, on the rebound, or some stable combination of all three orbits.
The Bulls are not consensus favorites to win the MAC again but are still regarded as one of the better teams in the league, picked for second or third in the various preseason polls. Returning to the national rankings and at-large bid discussion will require another near-perfect record in non-conference play and continued dominance of the league. UB could be better than it had ever been before Oats’ arrival and still find that last season’s stated goal of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament remains out of reach.
Or UB might have the right pieces in place to continue its ascent.
“We can go out there and do the same things,” Jordan said. “Actually, we are thinking about topping it. I don’t see why we can’t. We have similar players that bring different attributes to the game but at the end of the day we are all hungry and focused on playing our brand of blue-collar basketball.”