AKRON, Ohio — Nate Oats stood in front of his University at Buffalo basketball team Tuesday night, glaring a hole in the stat sheet he was holding. He looked up at his players, cramped in the small locker room normally used by the Akron men’s soccer team, then back at the stat sheet.
The room was quiet. Finally, he spoke.
“Fellas, if I tell you a team had six assists and  turnovers in a game, what would you say happened to them in that game?”
“They lost,” came a chorus of voices.
He nodded and went on. “And when a team has six assists, what would you say about that team that night?”
The chorus was equally quick but in unison the second time: “They were selfish.”
Oats nodded. His voice was emphatic but controlled. There was no profanity, no ranting — for good reason. The No. 25 Bulls had just won, beating a solid Akron team, 76-70 . Buffalo has become the Mid-American Conference’s target team, everyone’s biggest game, and this victory was not one to throw back.
After that win, Buffalo was 21-3 overall and 9-2 in the MAC; they’re now 22-3 and 10-2 after winning, 88-82, on Friday at Toledo. The Bulls have won at West Virginia, at Syracuse and at St. Bonaventure. Even if they don’t win the MAC tournament, they are almost a lock to land an NCAA tournament at-large berth.
The last time the MAC sent two teams to the NCAA tournament?
Oats can tell you off the top of his head: “Twenty years ago.”
But foremost on Oats’s mind Tuesday was the next game, and the next few weeks. Oats can see March coming — almost feel it coming — and he wants to be certain this team will be playing its best basketball then.
It has a lot to live up to.
A year ago, the Bulls were briefly the darlings of the NCAA tournament. They were the No. 13 seed in the South Region after winning the MAC for the third time in four years, and they destroyed No. 4 seed Arizona, 89-68, in a game that wasn’t even that close. A 20-point loss to No. 5 Kentucky in the second round ended their run.
“We had 24 hours as stars,” Oats said, laughing. “Then UMBC beat Virginia and everyone forgot about us.”
Oats interviewed at Pittsburgh and Xavier after last season. Even though both jobs would have meant a huge pay raise and more prestige, he wanted to come back to the Bulls.
“We had so much talent coming back,” he said. “I thought we had a real chance to do something special. I mean, don’t get me wrong: Last season was special. I think we have a chance to be better this season.”
Buffalo’s four leading scorers are seniors, led by C.J. Massinburg, who had one other Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school in Texas — from Prairie View. The Bulls’ warmups read, “Blue Collar Mentality,” and they play that way — when they play the way Oats wants them to play.
The win over Arizona put Oats in the spotlight, in part because Buffalo had never won an NCAA tournament game, but also because of his remarkable story. Five years earlier, he had been a high school coach in Romulus, Mich., a town best known for the fact that it sits one exit west of the Detroit airport on Interstate 94.
Oats started for four years at Division III Maranatha Baptist in Wisconsin and knew he wanted to coach. Coaching had been his dream since high school.
“Once I realized I wasn’t going to play in the NBA, I knew I wanted to coach,” he said. “Basketball was my first love for as long as I can remember. I wanted my life to be in the game.”
He spent three years as an assistant at his alma mater and then two as a volunteer assistant at Wisconsin Whitewater, a D-III power, while teaching high school math for a living. His goal was to keep moving up the college ladder and eventually become a D-I assistant.
But then a college buddy of his — Ed Horn, who was teaching at Romulus — reached out to see whether he’d be interested in coaching there. Oats’s first answer was no, but he was disappointed when he hadn’t been promoted to the top assistant job at Whitewater, so he agreed to interview.
Eleven years later, he had coached 18 players who went on to play in Division I, and his 2013 team went 27-1 en route to a state title.
The star of that team, E.C. Matthews, was recruited by Rhode Island. The coach there was Dan Hurley. His top assistant was older brother Bobby Hurley, the NCAA’s all-time assists leader.
When Bobby Hurley took over at Buffalo in 2013, Oats asked Matthews whether he still wanted to go to Rhode Island. “Absolutely,” he said.
When Oats called Dan Hurley to deliver the news, Dan asked whether he had any interest in working for Bobby. Both brothers had been impressed by Oats.
“I’d always wanted a shot at D-I,” Oats said. “Third assistant, that was fine with me. I was about to turn 40. I was ready to take a shot.”
But Hurley didn’t want Oats as his No. 3 assistant — he wanted him as his top assistant. Two years later, after taking Buffalo to the NCAA tournament for the first time, Hurley headed to Arizona State. Oats succeeded him.
“Dream come true,” he said.
Six months later, Oats was meeting with his staff when his phone buzzed. He ignored it. His informal rule was that no one interrupted a staff meeting to answer the phone.
The phone wouldn’t stop. Finally, Oats walked across the room to check the phone. There were six straight calls from Crystal, his wife and the mother of their three young daughters. She had gone in for a biopsy — precautionary, they thought — for inflamed lymph nodes.
Crystal had cancer — specifically, double-hit lymphoma. Oats drove home immediately and told Crystal he would take a leave of absence.
“Absolutely not,” she replied. “This is the job we’ve both dreamed of. You keep working.”
Crystal began aggressive treatment — six rounds of intense chemotherapy. It was a long, difficult winter, but she has been cancer-free for three years.
And Oats, at 44, is coaching a team he thinks can play with anybody if it plays the way it’s capable of: up-tempo (the Bulls average 85 points) with tough, aggressive defense.
The Bulls scored 88 points Friday at Toledo after falling behind 10-0. They didn’t take the lead until midway through the second half but made their free throws at the end to prevail. It wasn’t a perfect night, but it was a very good one against a good team.
March is two weeks away. Oats and his team can’t wait.