TULSA — After hours spent watching film, discussing scheme and warming up muscles, perhaps the most important three minutes in Buffalo’s NCAA Tournament preparation comes when they all sit still and close their eyes.
It happens every game, as the team returns to the locker room after its first shootaround on the court. Nate Oats and his staff discuss game plan in another room, and Arnie Guin enters to address the team. Guin, a registered psychotherapist and one of the few official “mental skills coaches” in all of college basketball, might well be Buffalo’s secret weapon.
“It’s time to warrior up, we’re going to be in a fight,” Guin told the team before Friday’s game.
He picked out two keywords for the team to focus on: “strong” and “courageous.” Then he led them through a visualization exercise. Players were instructed to close their eyes and take deep breaths, envisioning themselves making successful plays on the floor. Guin went through them one by one, first on the defensive end of the floor and then on the offensive side.
“Really what I try to do is build their confidence,” Guin said. “And secondly, their testosterone is going and what we’ve learned is if they’re slowed down mentally, that actually helps their game on the floor, because they get their assignments right and get the right reads, they’re working together more cohesively, and it’s really easy to see.”
Judging by the 91-74 bludgeoning of Arizona State that unfolded over the next two hours, the visualization seemed to have worked. The Bulls might not be the tallest or most skilled team in the field, but they play with an uninhibited freedom rarely found in the cautious grind of NCAA Tournament play. This carefree aggression could be why they are so successful in March, proving last year’s 20-point drubbing of Arizona was no fluke by giving Arizona State the same treatment.
Truthfully, Guin’s allusion to fighting is an apt one, because the easiest comparison for a Buffalo basketball game is a Kimbo Slice street fight. You remember Kimbo Slice, right? The bald-headed, big-bearded, bareknuckle brawler made famous in the early days of YouTube for brutal backyard beatdowns? Slice was not the greatest fighter, nor is Buffalo the greatest basketball team. But he might well have been the scariest. The 6-foot-2, 260-pounder’s style, if you can call it that, was pure aggression and swagger. No matter the opponent, Slice came right at them throwing his biggest haymakers.
Such is the experience of running with the Bulls. There’s something combative about their style, something in-your-face about their confidence.
“I want to instill in them an attacking mindset,” Oats says. Within his system, there’s very little check on aggressive play.
Take for instance a play early against Arizona State. Buffalo collected a missed jumper and took off in transition, leading to forward Jeremy Harris pulling up on the fast break for three. Keep in mind, Harris is a 27 percent shooter from deep. The shot clock read roughly the same number. On most teams, this was the type of shot that warrants a disproving stare and possibly a talking-to by the coach, especially after the ball hit nothing but backboard.
After point guard CJ Massinburg grabbed the offensive rebound, fittingly dribbled right back out and fired up another three that swished, Oats’ response on the sidelines was merely a nod of his head and a circular “speed it up” motion with his hand.
No other team in America would let Harris shoot seven times from behind the arc in a single elimination game. But it’s also why no other team has the benefit of three going in. He finishes with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. After the game as the team walked down into the tunnel, Harris reminded Oats his first three-point shot against Arizona the previous year hadn’t hit the rim either. He scored 23 points that game.
“Keep shooting the ball,” Oats remembered saying in response.
Buffalo’s attack-mode ethos is well established at this point. Oats recruits it, develops it, and unleashes it during games. Defensively the Bulls swarm and hunt for turnovers. They run the fast break gleefully, often accompanied by Oats galloping down the sideline and waving his arm in a windmill motion like a third base coach sending a runner home.
In the half court, their base offense—if we’re sticking with the Kimbo Slice analogy—is a series of jabs. Oats calls it “flow game.” With the court spread, players are encouraged to take their defender one-on-one off the dribble, then kick out if the defense collapses. The next player catches and attacks. Oats often challenges players during film sessions by saying, “Can this guy stay in front of you one on one? No? Well then what are you doing? Beat him!”
Like any good jab, the drive-and-kicks are probing for the first opportunity at a knockout punch: an open three or a layup. As an analytics junkie, Oats wants his team taking open shots from these high efficiency areas as soon as they’re available. As a result, the average possession length hovers around 14 and a half seconds, third fastest in the country and easily the fastest in the NCAA Tournament.
The amount of freedom Oats’ players enjoy runs counter to the prevailing narrative that one must give up a good shot for a better shot. It’s a style exaggerated during high-pressure situations, such as the NCAA Tournament, where each possession carries with it the weight of the season. In such deliberate offensive schemes each shot becomes precious, which Oats believes can cause stress and second-guessing. He doesn’t want any of his players looking back at the bench to see if they screwed up.
“Players can have so much pressure on them playing on a bigger stage,” guard Davonta Jordan says. “With Oats letting us play aggressive and free, and letting us build our confidence, it definitely helps.”
Part of Oats’ plan to nurture fearlessness was to bring in Guin before the 2016-2017 season. Guin operates a counseling practice in Buffalo, and has a decade of experience working with athletes on their confidence. He and Oats were friends, and together they created “The Bulls’ Way of Life,” a yearlong mental skills training curriculum that includes a summer seminar, weekly meetings with the team, pregame visualizations and one-on-one counseling on an “as needed” basis.
Guin hopes to break the mold of university sports psychologists operating out of a faraway office and waiting for athletes to come to them when they have a problem. His embedded role with the team allows him to take a proactive approach to mental acuity.
During his sessions with the team, both in a group setting and one-on-one, Guin says 90 percent of the conversation has nothing to do with basketball. He encourages players to open up, giving them a space to share about their personal lives and struggles with him and each other. “We believe if we can be that open and transparent as a team off the court, that’s going to translate on the court,” Guin says.
“The mind is a powerful thing,” Massinburg says. “You can get yourself into a rhythm mentally but you can also psych yourself out. You miss a shot you get down on yourself man I’m not shooting no more, it can take you out your whole game so we definitely going to keep developing the mind.”
Whether it’s Oats’ style of play, Guin’s mental training, or the players’ own swagger that causes it, Buffalo’s greatest strength is its nonstop attack.
Sunday’s second round opponent, Texas Tech, will put it to the test. The Red Raiders play slowly and boast the nation’s most efficient defense, so good that midway through the year Oats studied it to see what he could learn and implement for his own team. He knows how well they slow opponents down and disrupt their offense, and need look no farther than the way they shut down fast-paced Northern Kentucky on Friday.
In order to overcome it, Oats looks to the other end of the floor. The team that controls the tempo controls the game, and he knows the way to speed up the tempo is to defend and rebound. His solution, of course, is to attack.
“Whenever we get stops and we get out in transition,” Oats says. “I don’t care how good the defense is, they’re going to have problems.”