For Buffalo head coach Nate Oats, weathering the storm becomes a fact of every day life when you’ve spent your entire career coaching in Buffalo, Detroit and Wisconsin.
The Bulls third-year coach played his high school and college ball in Wisconsin, and got his start in coaching at his alma mater (Marantha Baptist) as soon as his playing days were over. He then moved to the Detroit area, where he was a math teacher and head boys’ basketball coach at Romulus High School for 11 years before getting an opportunity as an assistant at Buffalo under legendary Duke guard Bobby Hurley.
However, there was an unexpected storm on the home front in 2015 when Oats’ wife Crystal was diagnosed with cancer near the start of his first season as an NCAA head coach. The father of three young girls considered walking away from the game during his first year on the job.
However, Oats and his family were able to weather the storm during that first year of his wife’s diagnosis with the support of the university, his players and his coaching staff. This especially included associate head coach Jim Whitesell, who took on a much larger role during that 2015-16 season. In the end, Buffalo won the MAC championship and made a second-consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament that year.
Oats said that it has been a little over a year and a half since Crystal had a bone marrow transplant and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, and that all signs appear positive in her steps to recovery.
“You never want to say you’re in the clear because it’s a scary disease but if you can get to three years out without it coming back; your odds are much better,” he said. “Right now everything has been good and God has been great.”
On the floor, Buffalo has a deep roster of talent that appears poised to create a storm of its own over the next two seasons. The Bulls have gotten out to 6-3 start this year after being picked as the favorite to win the MAC East, and most of their key players with be eligible to return next season as well.
It starts with 6’1 junior guard Dontay Caruthers, who is the reigning the MAC Defensive Player of the Year and is a leader on the floor for the Bulls. Oats says Caruthers’ smothering defense is a nightmare for MAC opponents in the guard-heavy conference, and that his tenacity is recognized by opposing coaches and players.
6’8 junior forward Nick Perkins was the Sixth Man of the Year in the MAC last season and currently sits second on the team in scoring, averaging 15.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Oats feels that Perkins improved a great deal in the offseason due to the coaching staff’s focus on improving the mental aspect of the game for all players. Perkins is a guy that takes the weight room seriously and has now come into the season with a more balanced approach to his game, which is showing on the floor.
And for his part, 6’3 junior guard CJ Massinburg is starting to gain some national notoriety for his explosive play.
Nate Oats and Buffalo have a stud in CJ Massinburg. Had 28 and 14 in Bulls' last game against Delaware. Last three games: 24.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 8, 2017
Massinburg leads the Bulls in both points (19.7) and rebounds (7.6) per game.
Oats discussed the opportunity to work for three years as an assistant under Hurley, who has since moved on to Arizona State and has the Sun Devils ranked as one of the top teams in the country.
“I love him to death but he is not built like you and I in that he doesn’t handle losing well; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
Buffalo has played a challenging non-conference schedule so far, which included a tough loss to Cincinnati at the Cayman Island Classic, as well as upcoming games against in-state rival Syracuse (Dec. 19) and a Texas A&M squad that is currently ranked in the top ten (Dec 21).
Playing against that level of competition early in the season provides an excellent opportunity for the Bulls to prepare for the challenging MAC schedule that starts Jan. 2 against Toledo.
There is a saying that if the world is cold then make it your business to start fires.
“We’re set up for a good run and I think we’ve got a chance to be really special here for the next few years,” Oats said.
He and the Bulls are on the verge of heating up the city of Buffalo this winter with an excellent chance to return as MAC champions and get back to the NCAA tournament.