When Xavier Ford signed to play basketball at UB in the fall of 2010, it was an unlikely choice. He was Colorado’s best player and a kid who would earn national honors after his senior season. The Bulls had some success but weren’t making much noise nationally.
How things have changed.
Buffalo ended up being a great decision for Ford, and he returned the favor, helping catapult Bulls basketball into the national spotlight with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. “I didn’t know Buffalo even had a college team,” Ford, the reigning MAC Tournament MVP, said after the historic season ended, recalling his reaction to being recruited at Harrison High in Colorado Springs.
Everyone from well-known college hoops analysts like Jay Bilas to the president—not UB’s leader, the commander-in-chief—got on the Bulls bandwagon this year, selecting 12th-seeded Buffalo to upset No. 5 West Virginia. That didn’t happen, but UB basketball is now a known entity.
To be sure, Ford is hardly the only reason. MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, among other starters, played a big part. So did head coach Bobby Hurley, who said he took inspiration from the women’s soccer team, which earned its first NCAA tourney berth after winning the conference title in the fall, just as basketball season was getting underway. “I remember seeing that team celebrating and thinking, Wow, that’d be great if we were in that position,” Hurley recalled. (Hurley’s success at UB—he went 42-20 in his two seasons here—garnered attention from other programs, and in April, he accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State. Nate Oats, Hurley’s top assistant, was named UB’s next head coach.)
UB showed flashes of greatness early on, hanging with powerhouses Kentucky and Wisconsin. The team really caught fire, though, in the last month of the season, and that’s when people began to take notice. The official UB supporters bar near Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, where UB played its NCAA Second Round game, turned customers away because it was so packed—with UB fans. “I think we showed the players on this team and alumni what this program can evolve into,” says senior and Buffalo native Will Regan.
The good news for Bulls fans is that the team returns five of the top eight players in its rotation. They’ve lost key guys, such as Ford and Regan, to graduation, but there’s a lot of talent behind them, including All-MAC Freshman Team selection Lamonte Bearden, and highly touted transfers Torian Graham and Maurice O’Field, and, of course, the unstoppable Moss.
The opening weekend of this year’s NCAA Tournament enjoyed record television ratings, and UB was on that stage. You can bet that the next crop of Xavier Fords at high schools around the country know Buffalo has a basketball program. And they know it’s pretty good.
When UB traveled to West Virginia in March for the program’s first-ever Women’s National Invitation Tournament appearance, they saw what it takes to reach the game’s elite level. The Mountaineers had made the NCAA Tournament five straight years before having to “settle” for the WNIT this past season.
UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack already knew the answer. “It takes a little bit of crazy,” she says. Truth be told, UB’s players were a little put off by their new coach’s unbridled enthusiasm when she first arrived in Buffalo three years ago. Now they get it.
“She has a passion for the game that no one comes close to,” says Mackenzie Loesing, who garnered MAC Sixth Player of the Year honors as a junior this season. “To play for a coach that loves the game as much as she does, it makes you want to work hard every single day.”
“The reason I’m so crazy, the reason I’m so intense, is because that’s the level you have to be at on a daily basis,” adds Legette-Jack, who coached Indiana to three WNIT appearances during her time in Bloomington. “These young ladies thought that I was a little crazy, and then they saw West Virginia and they realized it takes a little crazy to be really, really good.”
The Bulls had one of their best seasons ever, finishing 19-13 overall, the first time they racked up that many wins since 2000-01. And it marked back-to-back winning campaigns for the first time since 1999-00 and 2000-01. UB earned its first WNIT bid—and only the second postseason invitation in program history—after falling to Ohio in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament.
“It sets a precedent. That’s the new expectation, to make it to postseason,” says Loesing, who, because of a lingering ankle injury, will return next season in a coaching role. “We made great strides this year but it’s only going up from here.”
The Bulls lose three seniors, including two of their top players—MAC Defensive Player of the Year Christa Baccas and Second-Team All-MAC selection Kristen Sharkey, who finished her career eighth all-time in scoring at UB—but there’s plenty of talent and drive returning next season. “These young ladies want more,” Legette-Jack says. “They absolutely understand what it takes.”
That’s why it doesn’t sound so crazy anymore for UB to be thinking big.
Men’s tennis won its first MAC Tournament title and NCAA tourney berth. It’s the first time three UB programs won a conference title and made the NCAAs in the same year.