Despite temperatures around zero degrees and a dumping of snow on campus, Buffalo's students -- back on campus for the first time in six weeks after winter break -- are trekking to Alumni Arena. It is barely 6 p.m., still an hour before the Bulls take on Ball State, but the arena is already beginning to fill up.
Less than a year removed from their 21-point throttling of Arizona in the NCAA tournament and a school-record 27-win season, and just weeks after the school's first win against Syracuse since 1963 (in the Carrier Dome, to boot) this is the new normal for the Buffalo Bulls.
The man at the forefront of it all is Nate Oats, a spry 44-year-old former high school math teacher who was coaching hoops at Romulus High School in greater Detroit less than six years ago. He's risen quickly behind the firm belief that the players come first, and on a style predicated on trust.
"We did a culture playbook two summers ago and our three main beliefs -- core values, we call them -- are max effort, continuous growth and selfless love," Oats said. He has expanded on the playbook by adding a blue-collar element to his program that reflects Buffalo itself -- a city with a rich history hit hard by various industrial changes, but with continued economic growth -- and a friendly, hardworking attitude.
During games, the staff charts what it calls blue-collar points -- deflections, hustle plays, charges -- any type of winning play that doesn't register in the box score. The player with the most points earns a construction helmet after the game.
"It gives us a visual representation of how we should conduct ourselves and how we should think out there on the court," says senior guard CJ Massinburg, a first-team All-MAC performer who tallied 43 points in an upset road win (Buffalo was an 11-point underdog) over West Virginia and who has received the award multiple times.
"We do whatever we can to make the players feel special," Oats told ESPN, "but in return we're gonna demand a lot out of them. I think we've done a really good job building relationships with guys."
After grinding it out as a successful Division III player at tiny Maranatha Baptist University in his hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin, Oats sought out coaching as a means to stay involved in the game he loved most. A quick search of his office reveals a slew of old coaching manuals -- tomes by Bob Huggins, Rick Majerus, Del Harris, Hubie Brown and Coach K are all favorites -- as well as a tediously organized drawer of old playbooks and notes.
"I love basketball. But I knew I wasn't gonna play for money," Oats said.
Oats -- whose Romulus teams were consistently ranked nationally and captured their first state title in nearly three decades under his guidance -- quickly built up equity among the Buffalo players as an assistant under Bobby Hurley. When Hurley accepted an offer to become the head coach at Arizona State nearly four years ago, Oats knew it was a tall order to expect the head-coaching position at UB, given his unconventional route up the coaching ladder.
But then-athletic director Danny White interviewed the players, and every single one of them advocated for Oats to get the job.
"What stood out is the connections [Nate] had with our players," White said. "His reputation as a high school coach -- most people I asked said he ran it like a Division I college program. Players had a strong relationship with him."
The positive sentiments were also echoed by Hurley, who informed White that his young assistant had already taken on a considerable coaching load in addition to building a strong rapport with the roster. And, if White didn't promote him, Hurley would surely retain his services in Tempe.
"I had a spot for Nate [at Arizona State] and I never gave that a second thought," Hurley said.
"I knew how passionate he was how and how hardworking he was. He was getting a lot out of our players. He's a really good recruiter. ... He invests building relationships with the guys."
Additionally, Oats preaches a suffocating brand of both individual and team defense, along with a complex offensive playbook full of NBA sets and built-in counters. The Bulls are one of the few teams in college basketball to rank in the top 30 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
"We don't care who we're playing -- we're gonna come out and be the aggressors," he said. "As long as you play hard and you give us max effort with a great attitude, I'm going to let you play through slumps."
Such a philosophy also manifests itself in recruiting, where the mission for Oats and his staff is not necessarily to get the highest-rated prospects, but the ones who best fit the program. Massinburg, for example, was a virtually unrecruited guard from Dallas with one Division I offer, from Prairie View A&M. Oats initially anticipated he would redshirt, but Massinburg worked his way into the rotation early, broke out with a 17-point effort at Duke, and never looked back. Massinburg -- who has a chance to become the school's all-time leading scorer -- has since become an indispensable member of the team and a perfect representation of that Buffalo blue-collar work ethic.
This season's freshman class, meanwhile, features Jeenathan Williams, a four-star recruit and the school's highest-ranked prospect ever to sign out of high school. The Bulls also inked Instagram sensation Ronaldo Segu, an electric point guard the staff has high hopes for and affectionately deems "Rondo."
"There are so many mistakes made in recruiting," Oats said. "You don't have to get guys ranked in the top 100. ... We compete at everything. Even walk-throughs, shootarounds. Some kids that's not for them. What we really want, is talented, good-character kids. I want competitive kids."
Competition even expanded into the summer, when the Bulls' coaching staff organized a four-day team retreat, in an effort to build camaraderie and trust, that omitted phones and included hill-running as well as players holding the same rope to climb a mountain.
"We do whatever we can to make the players feel special. But in return we're gonna demand a lot out of them. I think we've done a really good job building relationships with guys."Nate Oats
Few players personify the significance of trust more than senior guard Dontay Caruthers -- a former MAC Defensive Player of the Year -- who leads the Bulls with a 44 percent clip from deep. Caruthers has been in the Buffalo program for three years.
"I didn't like school," he said. "I love it now." Caruthers is currently pursuing his master's degree in educational studies.
"I've been able to find my confidence thanks to him [Oats] and my teammates. I don't think any other coach would do that," Caruthers said.
Hurley says it's Oats' experience at inner-city Romulus that helps him connect with players.
"He worked with kids that didn't come from ideal backgrounds all the time," Hurley said. "We have to be able to relate to our players and understand their struggles and their lives away from basketball."
Confidence was forged throughout last season, when the Bulls felt they were really on the cusp of something special -- even if Oats wasn't always so sure.
"Here's what we said," he recalled. "The first time that we play a high major on a neutral floor with our entire roster is gonna be in the NCAA tournament, and we're gonna beat 'em. That's what we said all year. Then we get to Sunday night. Arizona comes up as a 4-seed and you're like, 'Man, they got screwed.' They should have been at least a 3-seed, maybe even a 2. And then your name comes up two seconds later [a 13-seed].
"I thought we deserved an 11 or a 12. I wasn't excited, but I couldn't let the players see. You get back to the office later that night after the watch party and then you start studying the film. I actually convinced myself -- which you have to do, and then convince the players -- that this was a great matchup."
The Wildcats had momentum and Deandre Ayton, the eventual No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. But the Bulls had both the experience and the belief that they were the better team.
And they were right. The Bulls won 89-68.
Success generates exposure to new situations and first-class problems. After his team knocked off Arizona, Oats provided bulletin board material for coach John Calipari and Kentucky, Buffalo's second-round opponent.
"I'm maybe too honest, too naive, too stupid, haven't dealt with media enough," Oats said. "I made a comment before the Kentucky game. Basically a high school coach of mine had sent me a text, 'Cal's been whining about his youth.' So I said the same word [whining, to the media]; I should have just said Cal's been commenting about his lack of experience."
Kentucky knocked off the Bulls 95-75.
"Lesson learned," Oats said. "But I'm gonna say what I gotta say."
"It left a bitter taste in our mouths," Massinburg said. "We came into this year with the confidence we had last year."
Success and confidence also amounts to expectations, to which Oats says: "I don't want our guys thinking 'Final Four or bust.' Our thing was, let's talk about what our ceiling can be, and then let's be peaking at the end of the year."
Today, the elephant in the room is whether or not Oats will look to climb the coaching ranks and join a Power 5 program with a larger budget and the bells and whistles to match.
"That's the question of the year right now," Oats acknowledged. But it's a question shaped by more than basketball.
More than three years ago, Oats and his wife, Crystal, discovered that she had a rare form of cancer called double-hit lymphoma. Oats' coaching career immediately became secondary.
The family was able to lean on the school's medical program to connect with a new doctor and begin treatment.
"I walked in and said, 'What are we gonna do? If I need to step away for however much time it takes, that's what I'll do.' Right away she says, 'No, no, no, you're not doing that. This is your dream. We can get through this. You're gonna coach this team,'" Oats said. "And the entire community of Buffalo just embraced our family through the whole thing."
Crystal's cancer is now in remission.
"We love it here," Oats said of Buffalo. "Ideally we don't leave; we've built something special here and want to continue developing it. There may be a job out there somewhere that would be hard to say no to -- I don't know what that would be, though. Any decisions we would make would be what is best for our family. And Buffalo has shown our family amazing support in many areas and we're confident they'll continue to support us here. We've got a good feeling they're gonna make it really hard to leave, and hopefully we stay here for a long time."
The school does not want its bright young leader to leave either, especially after rewarding him with a salary raise to $600,000. It makes Oats the second-highest-paid coach in the MAC.
The mood at shootaround is light but focused. Associate head coach Jim Whitesell, a 35-year veteran of coaching, runs much of the Ball State scouting, walking through everything from specific sets to player tendencies and out-of-bounds specials. The top priority is for the scout team to properly execute the Ball State offense, which will provide a basis of what to expect in the game.
"Let's do diamond formation," Whitesell says, wanting to simulate one of the Cardinals' offensive sets. But things go awry and the intensity level drops momentarily.
"Run it again," Whitesell demands. "Obviously we're not doing it right. Pay attention, pay attention. Offense, I need you guys to run their s---!"
"You gotta go with more pace, A.J.," he instructs redshirt guard Antwain Johnson, a Middle Tennessee transfer who will be eligible next season.
"Hands, hands, hands!" Whitesell tells his defense.
"Can we try a game with zero moving screens?" Oats implores his team. "Let's try to get our turnovers back in single digits by eliminating stupid moving screens. ... If you pass up an open shot that ends up in a turnover, you're coming out of the game. I'm tired of passing up open shots. It's stupid."
(In the game that night, Segu would pass up a wide-open 3 and subsequently turn the ball over, to which Oats yelled, "Shoot the ball!")
One constant to any Bulls practice is competition. It represents the fabric of everything they hope to accomplish. To conclude shootaround, the team must make 80 3-pointers in five minutes -- the caveat being that if you miss two in a row, you then have to make 10 at the other end of the floor to get back into the drill. In a vacuum, everything is a competition because that is precisely how you learn to win.
About 20 minutes before tipoff, the Bulls head back to their locker room for a visualization exercise conducted by Arnie Guin, the team's mental skills coach. Perhaps no message hits home more than a Bill Russell quote he asks the guys to consider: "Concentration and mental toughness are the margin of victory."
Assistant coach Bryan Hodgson, who has been instrumental in anchoring the Bulls' impressive recruiting efforts, shares his thoughts with the guards, who have a tough assignment defending second-team all-conference shooting guard Tayler Persons: "Pressure him, but be solid. Don't need to reach, we've known that. You guys have guarded the s--- out of him for two years."
True to form, Buffalo races out to a 7-0 lead behind suffocating defense. Despite an 0-3 shooting start, senior forward Jeremy Harris makes three successive winning plays -- two offensive boards and a pass that leads to free throw attempts.
More than halfway through the first half, Ball State has as many points (six) as it does turnovers. The only problem: Buffalo can't seem to find any sort of offensive rhythm either. One of the most lethal transition attacks in the country continually comes up empty-handed in the open floor and so too does the Bulls' normally well-oiled half-court offense.
"That was the worst half of offensive basketball I've ever seen," Oats tells his staff before speaking with his team at intermission. Even with the offense sputtering, though, this remains the type of gritty, blue-collar game Oats wants -- a formula he believes will serve his team well in a single-elimination tournament setting. Physicality, defense and toughness often prevail, even when you can't throw it in the ocean.
"Quit avoiding contact. Get your butt to the free throw line," Oats tells his team before tipoff. "Soft teams can't win in March."
Ultimately, though, the Bulls prove to be anything but soft, prevailing with an 83-59 win while holding Ball State to a woeful 32 percent from the floor on 2-23 (8.7 percent) from 3, while turning the Cardinals over 18 times. Persons -- who averages 17 PPG -- is held to just six points on 2-of-12 shooting, one of the worst games of his career.
These days, there is a familiar sight at Bulls games for Oats, one which brings tremendous comfort. With Crystal's cancer in remission, she and their three daughters regularly attend games, even on the road. In the wake of Crystal's battle for her life, Oats now sees both basketball and life through a different, more balanced lens.
"When you go through cancer, there's a lot that's changed about me since three years ago," he said. "It puts everything in perspective. ... At the end of the day, there's no pressure. You're putting a ball through a ring. So I do think it's made me a better coach.
"There's stuff that you get as a teacher -- dealing with kids on an everyday basis -- that you don't get as an assistant. I taught these kids in class, but I taught their girlfriends. I had interactions with 150 kids a day for 11 years. There's all kinds of stuff that now I can relate better to. ... The unconventional route to where I've got, I wouldn't trade how I got here for anything."