Former Romulus coach Nate Oats putting Buffalo basketball on the map

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Buffalo put itself on the college basketball map last March by knocking off fourth-seeded Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Now, Buffalo feels it has a chance to be the Loyola Chicago of a year ago, making a long run in the NCAA Tournament while playing in the Final Four for a shot at the national championship.

Buffalo's Nate Oats, who coached at Romulus High School, thinks he has a team that's capable of making a run to the Final Four.

And, why not. After all, Buffalo has an experienced team loaded with seniors.

Loyola was under the radar as a No. 11 seed while making its impressive run last season, but Buffalo won’t be in that role after pulling off the upset of Arizona, then opening this season with a pair of impressive victories at West Virginia and at Syracuse — a pair of Sweet Sixteen teams from last season — to become a top-20 team.

Still, No. 10 Nevada — which advanced to the Sweet 16 last season  and No. 17 Houston have been the media darlings so far this season, while Buffalo has done its job without receiving the same type of hype.

No doubt, No. 18 Buffalo (14-1, 2-0 MAC) is an explosive team, averaging 85.3 points, including a 99-94 overtime win over West Virginia and a 110-80 rout of Toledo Tuesday, a team the Bulls beat 76-66 in last year’s MAC tournament championship game.

Buffalo has a metro Detroit area flavor in fourth-year head coach Nate Oats, who guided Romulus to the Class A state title in 2013, and 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior Nick Perkins who led Milan to the Class B state championship in 2014 before helping Buffalo win a pair of Mid-American Conference championships (2016, ’18).

Oats was an assistant under Bobby Hurley for two years, then took over the main job when Hurley departed for Arizona State after Buffalo won the MAC title in 2015.

Buffalo has multiple players who can take over a game, including Perkins who is averaging 13.9 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds.

Senior guard CJ Massinburg is averaging a team-high 17.7 points with 6.5 rebounds, shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from 3-point range, scoring a career-high 43 with 9-of-15 3-pointers in the win over West Virginia.

Jeremy Harris, a 6-7 senior guard, is averaging 15.1 points and 6.1 rebounds, scoring 34 on 6-of-10 3-point shooting against Toledo.

So, what does getting wins over such perennial powers as West Virginia and Syracuse do for Buffalo’s program?

“It enables us to get into the top 25 and shows people we’re at that level,” said Oats after watching his Bulls defeat Eastern Michigan, 74-58, last Friday night in Ypsilanti. “Morgantown (West Virginia) is one of the hardest places to play in the Big 12 and we went in there and got a win. We just walked into Syracuse and got a win and that’s one of the harder places to get a win in the ACC so I think it opened some doors up (in recruiting) to some of those kids who might not have looked at Buffalo before.”

So, could Buffalo be the Loyola of a year ago?

Forward Nick Perkins, who's from Milan, is averaging 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds for Buffalo this season.

“I think our ceiling could be that way,” Oats said. “We have a senior group who knows how to prepare and you’ll get those high major teams on the neutral floor. We have yet to get a high major on a neutral floor this year. When we get it to where it’s equal, I like our chances against some of some of those high majors.”

And, Oats feels fortunate to have Perkins playing for him.

“Nick gives us a big, that in my opinion, is as good as most high major bigs,” said Oats of Perkins. “He has size and the ability to stretch the floor. He can move in transition, can handle the ball, is just a really skilled big.

“He’s big to what we want to do because we play so spread and he’s a big who can shoot 3s and stretch the floor and is skilled. His freshman year in the NCAA Tournament against Miami (Fla.), he hit three (3s) right out of the gate in the first 10 minutes of the game to get us a 10-point lead. We encourage him to shoot 3s when he’s open and I think it will give him a chance to make a lot of money playing professionally, wherever it may be, after this year is done.”

Perkins is well on his way to earning his third straight MAC Sixth Man of the Year Award. He made three 3-pointers in last year’s 89-68 win over Pac-12 champion Arizona in the NCAA Tournament.

Perkins scored 21 on 4-of-6 shooting from long range Tuesday, making three 3-pointers during a 4-1/2 minute stretch in the second half to open up a 69-51 cushion over Toledo.

Perkins recalls playing against Oats while at Milan and is thrilled to be playing for him at Buffalo.

“I actually played against Nate my sophomore year when he was at Romulus and I was at Milan so it’s crazy to come here, really it’s such a small world for us to be here at Buffalo together, making history with all these wins and having a national ranking," Perkins said.

“I remember they had probably 7 D-1 players to our two or three. They had a really good team and he brought that from Romulus to here, that dribble-drive offense, a lot of guards out there with a lot of movement. It’s definitely something he brought with him and it works.”