AMHERST, N.Y. — Nate Oats can appreciate the skepticism he attracted two years ago, when coaching Buffalo to an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season.
Perhaps, some suggested, he somehow lucked out. Maybe, the success was the result of Bobby Hurley’s lingering influence after Oats’ renown predecessor left the Mid-American Conference Bulls for Arizona State a year earlier.
And who the heck was Nate Oats, others wondered, given he was coaching high school basketball in suburban Detroit just three years earlier.
“It’s true. It’s true,” Oats said, this week. “I was unproven. And you know, in some people’s eyes maybe it was a fluke.”
Don’t look now, but Oats once again has the Bulls in position to secure their third tournament berth in four years after Hurley’s team also made it in 2015.
Buffalo (23-8, 15-3 MAC) is the top seed — a program first — heading into the conference tournament at Cleveland next week.
By closing with a 100-70 win at Bowling Green on Friday, the Bulls matched a school record for overall single-season wins, increased their record for conference victories and became just the fourth team to win 15 MAC games since 1995-96.
The results have been validating for Oats, especially on a team featuring all but one player he directly recruited.
“Yeah, we’re doing stuff here they’ve never done before,” he said. “I think over the last three years we’ve proven we just didn’t get lucky, that we know what we’re doing here; that we’ve established a program that’s winning the regular season.”
Oats is also aware the Bulls can’t afford a misstep in a conference in which only the playoff champion is expected to earn a tournament berth. For now, Buffalo is only assured of the automatic NIT berth that comes with winning the regular-season title.
“We’ve got three games to win,” Oats said, of the Bulls advancing directly to the MAC quarterfinals on Thursday.
Buffalo has depth and size, and features a high-tempo attack in leading the nation by having scored 80 or more points 24 times. Buffalo entered Friday with four players averaging 14.9 points per game, and led by junior guard CJ Massinburg (17.3).
Their only drawbacks are on defense — the Bulls are 8-6 when allowing 80 or more points — and enduring the occasional letdown.
The Bulls won their first eight MAC games before losing two of four. That included a 90-88 overtime loss at Northern Illinois in which Buffalo squandered a 13-point lead over the final 8:19.
The loss to Northern Illinois stung in particular, given the Huskies entered Friday at 5-12, tied with Akron for the last in the MAC.
“We’re capable of losing to anybody in this league if we don’t come with our minds in the right spot,” Oats said.
Oats arrived in Buffalo as Hurley’s assistant, and is 60-38 since taking over as coach.
He overcame plenty of on- and off-court adversity in his first season. Oats considered taking an indefinite leave before his first season began once his wife, Crystal, was diagnosed with cancer. She talked him out of it. She is now cancer free.
Oats also faced the challenge of replacing Buffalo’s two top players after guard Shannon Evans followed Hurley to Arizona State and forward Justin Moss was kicked out of school for stealing $650 out of a dorm room.
Massinburg was among Oats’ first recruits and lured to Buffalo after he was considering attending junior college.
“I always wondered where I would be,” Massinburg said had Oats not come calling. “But there’s no doubt in my mind, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Oats is signed through the 2020-21 season, though enters a period of uncertainty. Buffalo is in the midst of an athletic director search after Allen Greene left for Auburn in January and at a time Oats could begin attracting lucrative offers from higher-profile programs.
The 43-year-old Oats said he’s already had discussions with school officials regarding a contract extension and pay raise.
“They say they want to keep me here and I trust they will,” Oats said, adding he has no intention of leaving Buffalo. “A great place to be. I could be in a lot of worst places.”
This, after all, is where Nate Oats has begun making a name for himself.