Nate Oats
(Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

The Buffalo Bulls picked up a pair of victories in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday and the excitement is palpable.

Justin Weiss

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—On the final night of the 2019 regular season, thousands of spectators packed Alumni Arena on the north campus of the University at Buffalo to watch the No. 15 Bulls take on the Falcons of Bowling Green University.

On a street corner adjacent to the arena, a young boy exclaimed to his father that he was really excited to be watching the nationally-ranked team. “They’re sooooo good,” he said.

Across the street, a number of college students, apparently members of the rowdy cheering section “True Blue,” broke out a “BU-FF-AL-O-GO” chant. They carried a large blue flag and had individualized marks of support—royal blue hair, Jurassic Park-inspired t-shirts, blow-ups of various seniors.

Friday’s Results

MEN’S: Jeremy Harris and Nick Perkins both dropped 21 points as the Bulls soundly defeated the Arizona State Sun Devils, 91-74.

WOMEN’S: Summer Hemphill recorded 23 points and seven rebounds as the Bulls upset the seventh-seeded Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 82-71.

Longtime season-ticket holders—seasoned, in no small part because of the team’s prior shortcomings—walked step-in-step with first-time fans. In the south parking lot, a child of no more than six or seven screamed, “Let’s go BUFAAWOOO.”

On this night, the Bulls pulled away with an 84-73 victory. Nick Perkins, the three-time MAC Sixth Man of the Year, posted 22 points and six rebounds. Three other players—including MAC Player of the Year CJ Massinburg and MAC Tournament MVP Jeremy Harris—also reached double-digit point totals.

Following the game, the school honored its winningest senior class in program history. Massinburg, Perkins, and Harris joined Montell McRae and MAC Defensive Player of the Year Dontay Caruthers on the court, where they were applauded by the 6,709 fans in attendance—a record-setting crowd.

“The crowd was great, the start was great and I’m just really proud of these guys here,” said head coach Nate Oats.

Oats, who took over for Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley in April 2015, has led the Bulls to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years. Last year, his team stunned the nation with a 21-point victory over the Arizona Wildcats and eventual No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton in the first round of the tournament.

Picking up on this success, the Bulls shocked West Virginia in the Mountaineers’ home opener. The next month, they knocked off both Syracuse and St. Bonaventure on their home courts. When all was said and done, the Bulls had a 31-3 record, tied for the best in the nation.

On Friday afternoon, the sixth-seeded Bulls knocked off the 11th-seeded Sun Devils, 91-74. For many, the storyline was the battle of coaches—former Buffalo coach Hurley against current coach Oats. But lost in that media frenzy is the larger picture: If there was any doubt that the Bulls are for real, this settles it.

Perkins, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior from Ypsilanti, MI, used to roam the halls of the University at Buffalo with relative anonymity. That is no longer the case. Suddenly, the campus and region are bursting with energy over the school’s remarkable success.

The program is “everything the city of Buffalo has waited for,” one man cloaked in a blue and white shirt said. “It’s amazing for this region.”

The Nickel City last had an NBA team in the late 1970s, when the Buffalo Braves sauntered around Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Since then, the city has seen little success with the Bills and Sabres. This year, the Bulls have been sort of a revelation.

“I’ve already been to three games this season, after never having been to any before,” an older gentleman wearing a ‘Horns Up’ sweatshirt said. “It’s just really cool to have such a good team play in this city. We’ve been waiting a really long time for this.”

The university has been handsomely rewarded with a 40 percent increase in season ticket sales. The men’s and women’s programs have experienced a growth of 30,000 fans in combined attendance. For the first time in program history, the school has sold standing-room-only tickets.

“It’s always good to have demand that exceeds supply,” UB Director of Athletics Mark Alnutt told Jeff Preval of WGRZ-2. “In some cases that means that you have a product that is wanted. We’ll accommodate everyone until the fire marshal says no more.”

Recently, Oats agreed to a five-year extension that will keep him in Buffalo through the 2024 season. This was a surprising move to those who haven’t followed the program.

But in the city of Buffalo, Nate Oats is building something—something big.

“The support from our community, fans, and boosters has been nothing short of incredible,” Oats said in the official university release. “We love it in Buffalo and look forward to continuing to build on what we have going here.”

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.