MILWAUKEE — Nate Oats stands on the sideline, arms crossed, watching Markus Howard dribble the ball at the top of the key. What is he supposed to do? His team trails by 10 points with just seven minutes remaining. Not that the deficit is itself a problem, necessarily, considering Buffalo trailed in the second half against Syracuse three days earlier and won. Same with West Virginia a month ago.
It’s Howard that worries him. Oats strategized specifically to stop him from scoring, and it isn’t working. At the last timeout he tweaked the plan, instructing his team to now switch all screens so Howard doesn’t have a chance to sneak open. Now all Oats can do is watch.
Howard passes, and his Marquette teammates rotate and shuffle around the court. When shot clock ticks down he suddenly breaks back to the ball, catching it several feet behind the three-point line and firing an off-balance shot over the outstretched arms of Buffalo forward Nick Perkins.
For a few brief moments after the ball leaves Howard’s right hand, time seems to slow down. The ball floats gently through the air and 17,000 fans inside the Fiserv Forum hold their breath in collective silence. No way, their minds tell them, there’s just no way that ball is going in. Their hearts disagree.
As the ball patiently begins to descend towards the hoop, the sound of a referee’s whistle pierces the silence. Foul on the shot. Ok, there’s seriously no way. An instant later the ball snaps cleanly through the net and the silence gives way to rapturous applause.
In retrospect, it’s hard to know which of Howard’s nine three-pointers (among his 40 second-half points) was the real dagger in the heart of Buffalo’s undefeated season. This one put the Golden Eagles up 14, and set off 24 straight points from the 5-11 sharpshooting junior. It’s as good a choice as any.
Oats glances down at the floor. Maybe he should’ve called a timeout to stop the momentum. Maybe he should’ve called for his team to trap screens instead of switch. Or maybe there was nothing he could’ve done.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read Marquette 103, Buffalo 85.
Friday’s game marked the end of what Oats called “the biggest week in the history of non-conference Buffalo basketball.” Armed with its highest AP ranking in school history, 14, the Bulls knocked off in-state powerhouse Syracuse in the Carrier Dome and entered their matchup with Marquette as one of eight remaining undefeated teams in all of college basketball. This was their fifth true road game of the year.
Such is life for a mid-major with NCAA Tournament aspirations. Scheduling games against teams the selection committee will respect come March has never been more difficult, and Oats knows in order to do it he must accept the check, collecting money for his athletic department to play on an opponent’s home floor.
With the buy games come tough competition, and more practically, difficult travel. After Tuesday night’s victory at Syracuse, the team elected to bus the two-and-a-half hours back to Buffalo rather than pay for a hotel, arriving home around 3 a.m. Wednesday morning. After a day of practice, players rose around 4 a.m. on Thursday morning in order to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago. Chartered planes simply aren’t in the budget, and the only other connecting flight wouldn’t have landed until late in the evening. Another two-and-a-half hour bus trip from Chicago to Milwaukee preceded a short workout on Thursday afternoon.
By the time the team steps onto the court at the Fiserv Forum at noon on Friday, the term walkthrough is a literal one. After a few shooting drills, the coaches get down to the business of stopping Marquette. Or more appropriately, stopping Howard, who enters the game averaging better than 22 points per contest. Every Golden Eagles opponent essentially has the same two choices: let him get his points and take away the rest of the team, or attempt to shut him down.
Oats picks option two. As if that were a surprise. Taking the more aggressive route has been a hallmark of Oats’ teams at Buffalo. Playing against West Virginia’s vaunted full-court press in November, the Bulls opted to push the pace and beat WVU at their own game. When Syracuse’s legendary 2-3 zone begged them to shoot threes, they kept firing from deep until they got hot and buried the Orangemen. Oats’ confidence level in his teams less resembles the “belief” one often finds surrounding Cinderella teams, and looks much more like all out swagger. He expects to dominate rather than adapt.
This bulldog mentality goes all the way back to Oats’ playing days. No more than 50 miles from Marquette’s campus, Oats played Division III basketball at Marantha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin.
“I was a blue collar guy,” he says, recalling a signature win against D-III powerhouse Ripon College in which he played 38 minutes and shot the ball only twice. He was scrappy, yet dismayed by the fact that he “wasn’t really allowed to shoot.”
So when he became a coach, he was determined to let his players be free.
“I didn’t want to be that coach that guys are looking over at the bench, scared to shoot,” he said.
It’s a big reason why the average Buffalo offensive possession lasts fewer than 15 seconds. They play at blazing speeds, and the first open shot is a good one. Oats is happy with anyone shooting their shot.
That is, as long as they played hard. In his second year at Buffalo, Oats felt like his team was soft, and was looking for a way to fix it. He came up with a gimmick, a blue construction hard hat given to the player who collected the most “blue collar points.” Four points for taking a charge, two points for diving on the floor, one and a half for an offensive rebound, one for deflections, loose balls, steals, and defensive boards.
It became one of the building blocks in Oats’ new culture. He put together a culture playbook centered on the principles of maximum effort, continuous growth and selfless love. He hired a mental skills coach to come in and work with the team twice per week. And this season, Oats doubled down, putting up plaques for each game’s blue collar hard hat winner in the locker room and giving the team gray logoed t-shirts that say “Blue Collar Mentality” on the back. Playing aggressively has become their mantra.
Coming into Friday’s game, Oats had good reason to believe he could shut down Howard. At his disposal was each of the last two MAC Defensive Players of the Year in 6’1 senior Dontay Caruthers and 6’2 junior Davonta Jordan. It’s Jordan who drew the assignment of guarding Howard.
“My game plan was to try to limit his touches, stay solid, make him score over me, make every shot he take contested, and make him take tough shots,” he said.
Offensively, Oats tells his team at the walk through that he wants to “run Howard through a million screens” to tire him out.
In the first half, Buffalo’s game plan works. Howard shoots just one of seven from the field with five turnovers, and spends nine minutes on the bench with foul trouble after Caruthers takes a charge on Howard for his second (earning him four blue collar points).
“We kind of had him in check there for a while,” Oats said postgame. “Then you screw up once or twice and he sees the ball go through the rim, and now you’ve got a problem.”
Whether the Bulls lost focus, or the last of their energy reserves, the defense began slipping in the final 15 minutes. The imaginary line at the top of the key extending to the sidelines that Oats had drawn during walkthrough, the line that Buffalo players were told to sprint back to in order to prevent transition threes, began to recede. Howard got an open look, and made it. The next time down he got another three, this one a little less open. Swish. Then another, and another. His 40 points after halftime came on 11 of 18 shooting, including eight of 10 threes, prompting Oats to call it “probably the best individual performance I’ve ever seen a guy put on.”
He takes the blame for Howard’s second-half explosion, trusting his team where he could have taken a timeout or trapped to get the ball out of his hands. He tried putting smaller defenders on Marquette’s big men, aiding a switch, and it did little to slow the onslaught. But Howard’s points were not the stat that had him most alarmed heading into Mid-American Conference play.
“I screwed up on how we guarded Howard a little bit, I’ll take some of that, but the fact that we got out-rebounded by 14, that speaks to our toughness, our effort,” he said. “That’s why we got to 14th in the country. We’re more blue-collar, out-tough teams. So for us to come in and get really outplayed at what we value, that’s the biggest thing I’m upset with after this game.”
Asked what the team can learn going into conference play, Oats was blunt.
“I told them some of you guys are just going to have to man up and decide who you want to be,” he said.
Oats passed Howard as he exited the media room and the Marquette star was walking in. They embraced.
“I saw you put 45 on Kansas State,” he said. “I didn’t think you were going to do it to us.”
Howard smiled and replied: “You should be proud of your guys. Great game.”