Could Buffalo Become the Next Gonzaga of Men's College Basketball?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 18, 2019

CJ Massinburg and Nate Oats
CJ Massinburg and Nate OatsJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Six years ago, Buffalo men's basketball wasn't even an afterthought at a national level.

The Bulls had never been to the NCAA tournament and had only once earned a share of a regular-season conference title (2009). They finished a couple of seasons in the KenPom top 100 but never sniffed the AP Top 25 or an at-large bid.

Sam Pellom is still the only player from the program to ever play in the NBA, and he went undrafted prior to brief stints with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks almost 40 years ago.

In a sport with more than 300 teams, Buffalo was just a nameless face in the crowd.

But the Bulls are no longer anonymous.

Far from it, actually.

Since hiring Bobby Hurley as the head coach before the 2013-14 seasonthe team transitioned to Nate Oats two years later without missing a beatBuffalo has won three MAC regular-season titles and three conference tournaments. After close calls against No. 5 seed West Virginia in the 2015 NCAA tournament and No. 3 seed Miami the following year, the Bulls finally broke through and destroyed No. 4 seed Arizona 89-68 in the first round this past March, securing the first tournament win in school history.

For most mid-major programs, that kind of five-year run would be the end of the story—a once-in-a-lifetime stretch of success fueled by a kid the recruiting services whiffed on and a head coach bound for greatness elsewhere.

For Buffalo, it was only the beginning, as this year's Bulls are arguably the best mid-major team not named Gonzaga.

And, no, we're not forgetting about Nevada. That's just how good Buffalo is.

Davonta Jordan
Davonta JordanPeter Morrison/Associated Press

Forget about anonymous, Buffalo is a unanimous top-25 team in the latest AP poll, appearing on all 64 voters' ballots for the first time this season. The 16th-ranked Bulls are 16-1 overall with road wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. They are breezing through league play with a 4-0 record and an average margin of victory of 19.8 points.

Both on KenPom and in the NET rankings, this is a top-20 team. If they can keep that status for another two months, they won't be a plucky No. 12 or No. 13 seed but instead the fringe title contender that a No. 12 or No. 13 seed is hoping to upset in the first round.

So what has been the secret to their emergence?

Turnovers.

Or, rather, a lack of turnovers.

From 2002-13, Buffalo turned the ball over on at least 20 percent of its offensive possessions in each season, according to KenPom. And unless you're incredible at something else, it's hard to win with any sort of regularity when you're giving the ball away that often.

In each of the past six seasons, however, the Bulls' turnover rate has been below 20 percent, including a mark of 14.7 this year that ranks in the top 10 nationally. At Buffalo's pace of roughly 74 possessions per game, that's an improvement of four turnovers per game.

And when the Bulls do cough it up, at least they aren't setting up their opponents with fast-break opportunities. According to KenPom, Buffalo's steal rate on offense is 5.8 percent, trailing only Michigan for the best rate in the nation. From 2002-14, Buffalo's best steal rate was 9.5 percent, and it was typically hovering closer to 11.0. Cutting live-ball turnovers in half is a phenomenal first step to getting better.

Nick Perkins
Nick PerkinsJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

It's more than just that, of course. This is Georgia Southern's sixth consecutive season ranking in the top 50 in offensive steal rate, but you don't see the Eagles in the AP Top 25or even in the KenPom top 100. In addition to limiting careless mistakes, Buffalo has also made strides on defense, has always done a good job of crashing the offensive glass and has mastered the art of getting old and staying old, consistently having a bunch of key upperclassmen in the fold.

This year, that last bit is more pertinent than ever, as five of the Bulls' seven leading scorers are seniors.

CJ Massinburg is the top scorer and the name most college basketball fans probably knowhe put up 43 points in the early win over West Virginia. But he, Jeremy Harris and Nick Perkins are each averaging better than 13 points and six rebounds per game for a team loaded with experience and ways to beat you.

No need to worry that the mid-major dynasty is going to disappear this offseason along with that quintet, though. There are several transfers sitting on the bench ready to make an impact next season, most notably among them Antwain Johnson from Middle Tennessee. And Oats and his staff are no strangers to building rosters from the transfer market. Three of this year's five top seniors began their careers at JUCO schools.

That's why it feels like we're looking at more than just a flash in the pan.

Buffalo will need to maintain this level of dominance for several more years—and reach a Sweet 16 or two—before people begin to seriously entertain the notion this could be an East Coast Gonzaga.

However, the bones are there for the Bulls to become an annual staple atop the MAC, given their proven ability to find players with some college experience who fit their system like a glove.

                

Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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