Tony Dejak / Assocaited Press
Friday, March 22, 2019 | 2 a.m.
UNLV doesn’t just want to win. The Rebels want to win big. The Rebels want to win with style. They want to put on the biggest, flashiest, best show in town.
While it’s not the driving force behind the coaching search, it is almost certainly something athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois will have to consider when making the first big hire of her career. She cited sagging attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center as one reason she decided to fire Marvin Menzies, so putting fans in the seats has to be a factor in her choice to succeed him.
So, are there coaching candidates out there who could not only win at UNLV, but win in a way that excites the locals to the point where they are compelled to purchase season tickets?
There just might be.
Buffalo is not considered the most exciting city in the world, and if you were asked to come up with a polar opposite of Las Vegas, the upstate New York burgh would be a decent choice. And yet, University of Buffalo men’s basketball games have somehow become an EVENT.
It’s because of the work done by Bulls head coach Nate Oats. In just four years, the 44-year-old Oats has turned Buffalo into must-see TV every time his team plays. You may remember the Bulls from their absolute trouncing of Arizona in last year’s NCAA tournament, when they ran the No. 4-seeded Wildcats off the floor, 89-68, but since Oats has been calling the shots Buffalo has played every game at that same frenetic pace.
Oats spent the first 11 years of his career as the head coach at a high school outside Detroit (Romulus HS, where he coached 2014 grad Kris Clyburn), and when Bobby Hurley was named head coach at Buffalo in 2013, he hired Oats as an assistant coach. When Hurley left for Arizona State after two years, Oats was elevated to the head job and has led the Bulls to the best stretch in program history. And he has done it by playing the kind of fast-break basketball that casual fans and diehards alike can get excited about.
Over the last four years, Buffalo has won the Mid-American Conference regular-season title twice and the conference tournament three times. Oats’s run-and-gun system has produced a record of 95-42, including a 52-20 mark in league play, and he has that signature win over Arizona to prove it can work against the power-conference elites.
That has made Oats one of the hottest names on the circuit and should make him a legitimate candidate to become UNLV’s next head coach.
How did Oats turn Buffalo, of all places, into the fast-break capital of the country? By implementing a system that values aggressive, attacking action over everything else.
If there is one defender back to protect the basket in transition and Buffalo’s ball-handler can get him into a 1-on-1 situation, the Bulls consider that a fast break and Oats wants his guy to attack. It’s the same with 2-on-2 situations; if Buffalo can get an even-man rush in the open court, Oats believes the offensive players can leverage the defensive players and create good shots. As a team, the Bulls don’t settle for anything less.
With that mindset of pushing the pace at every opportunity, Buffalo has become the most adept transition team in the country. This season, the Bulls had more transition possessions than any other school (738); last year they were second (710). According to KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo metric, Buffalo ranked No. 9 in the nation. And the Bulls are extremely effective in the open court, as they scored an efficient 1.110 points per possession in transition (40th in the nation) and averaged 84.9 points per game.
In each of Oats’s four years at Buffalo, the Bulls have never ranked lower than 37th in adjusted tempo. And they’ve finished in the top 10 in total transition possessions three times:
Offense doesn’t get much faster than that.
Even when Buffalo is forced to execute its halfcourt offense, things don’t slow down very much. Oats preaches an aggressive mindset, and he wants his players to force the issue at every opportunity. Actions that slow the pace – pump fakes, jab steps, rip-throughs – are discouraged. He coaches his players to attack closeouts directly, with the goal of forcing defensive rotations and kicking out to shooters.
It’s an absolutely ruthless offensive game plan, and with Oats directing things, Buffalo even finished in the top 100 in halfcourt efficiency this season (0.918 PPP, 97th). He embraces the analytic mindset of shooting 3’s, driving to the basket and eschewing the mid-range area. For the season, 43.4 percent of Buffalo’s shots have been 3-pointers and 44.5 percent have come at the rim; only 12.1 percent were mid-range attempts.
There is no single player responsible for pushing the pace – it’s all about the system. Six players average between 1.0 and 3.6 assists per game. Six players average between 7.3 and 18.3 points. And to top it off, even though Buffalo plays faster than anyone, they protect the ball. The Bulls’ turnover rate of 13.3 percent was the 21st-best in the nation this season.
The offense’s lone weak spot is 3-point accuracy; though the Bulls attempted the eighth-most 3-pointers in the nation (968), they connected at just 33.6 percent (222nd). It makes one wonder just how lethal Buffalo’s attack could be with good outside shooters.
It also makes one wonder how Las Vegans would respond to such a super-charged offense.
When reviewing VCU’s Mike Rhoades as a potential coaching candidate, we noted that his fast-paced offense is fueled by a full-court press defense that forces turnovers at a high rate. Oats’s method is different, but the result is similar.
Instead of pressing at every opportunity, Oats employs a man-to-man defense that favors quickness above all else. Buffalo played man defense on 99.8 percent of its possessions this season; the Bulls pressed on just 25 plays and ran zone only five times over the course of the entire season. They only trapped the pick-and-roll five times. It’s as straight-up as a defense can play, but because Oats’s players can anticipate and fly around the court, they still produced a turnover rate of 17.8 percent. That’s not so far off from VCU’s elite turnover rate of 19.5 percent.
The key tenet of Oats’s defensive system is closing out on shooters. To him, an uncontested jump shot is the worst possible outcome, so he puts a premium on long athletes who can recover, change direction and get out on shooters as quickly as possible. Of the 404 catch-and-shoot jump shots attempted against Buffalo this season, the Bulls contested 256 of them. Opponents shot just 31.5 percent on guarded jumpers and 32.3 percent on all jumpers, which ranked 58th in the nation. Because Buffalo closes out so hard, the 404 catch-and-shoot attempts allowed was the 39th-lowest mark in the country.
From there, it’s just a matter of grabbing the rebound and pushing the ball upcourt in a flash. Despite just one player taller than 6-foot-7 in the top six of the rotation, Buffalo actually rebounded pretty well, grabbing 967 defensive rebounds and allowing 343 offensive boards.
For the season, Buffalo allowed 0.824 points per possession, which ranked them 20th in defensive efficiency. Despite being slightly undersized, Oats’s team gets the job done on defense.
Meet me in Buffalo!
Recruiting kids to play in a low-major conference in snowy upstate New York can’t be easy, but Oats has done about as well as could be expected during his four-year tenure. He has snagged some diamonds in the rough out of high school, he has mined the junior-college pipeline effectively, and he has won some recruiting battles against power-conference competition.
When 3-star wing Jeremy Harris was coming out of junior college in 2017, Oats beat out Texas Tech and NC State for his commitment. Harris is now averaging 14.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists for Buffalo this season.
When guard C.J. Massinburg was coming out of high school in 2015, Oats spotted him at a summer showcase for unsigned recruits and was the second Division-I coach to offer him (after Prairie View A&M). Massinburg is now the Bulls’ leading scorer (18.3 points) and assist man (3.0).
When guard Jayvon Graves led his team to an Ohio state championship and was named Cleveland’s Player of the Year as a senior in 2017, Oats landed him. Graves started 33 games as a sophomore this season, averaged 9.9 points and made 38.0 percent of his 3-pointers.
When 4-star forward Jeenathan Williams popped up in the Bulls’ backyard (Rochester, N.Y.) last year, Oats kept him in-state. Williams played in all 34 games as a freshman this year and is poised to take on a significant role next season.
Because Romulus pumped out so many college prospects – the school produced 17 Division-I players during his tenure – Oats has strong recruiting relationships in the upper Midwest, including the talent-heavy Michigan, Ohio and greater Chicago areas.
Unlike some of the other low-major coaches who might be considered candidates for the UNLV job, Oats has a pretty projectable track record as a recruiter. Given UNLV’s tradition, location and resources, he could probably bring in the kind of classes to compete at the top of the Mountain West – and maybe even a level above that.
If UNLV does pursue Oats for its open head coach position, there will probably be competition. He has a lot working in his favor, including a brilliant offensive attack that would instantly pump life into a program. He doesn’t ignore the defensive side, either, which is why he has had Buffalo in the NCAA tournament in three of his four years (his sixth-seeded Bulls will take on No. 11 seed Arizona State, coached by Oats’s former boss Bobby Hurley, on Friday).
His career record is sparkling, he has a signature win in the NCAA tournament and he still has upside if he can recruit at a higher level. That makes him one of the most attractive candidates on the market.
The main question for UNLV would be whether Oats is the right man to turn around a bad program. He took over an NCAA-caliber team after Hurley left, and he has never really had to rebuild. With UNLV’s roster exodus over the past week, Oats would have to lean heavily on his juco contacts and also win recruiting battles for some sought-after grad transfers in order to throw together a competitive Rebels team in Year 1.
He also has a limited track record as a head coach. He’s only been working at the Division-I level for six years, and only four as a head coach. He’s only worked at one school. Could he adapt to the southwest/west coast and effectively develop the same kind of pipelines that have sustained his Buffalo program?
Oats recently signed an extension to remain at Buffalo – and “recently” is an understatement. The deal was agreed to just last week and runs through the 2023-24 season, but the base salary of $837,000 makes it possible that UNLV could swoop in and entice him with an offer to double his pay (and then some).
Of course, if Oats is willing to tear up his extension and leave just a couple weeks after signing it, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t be a long-timer at UNLV, either. If he were to resurrect the Runnin’ Rebels, his next move would be to a power-conference school that quadruples his salary, but that is a problem UNLV would love to have at this point.
If Oats is open to listening to UNLV’s pitch, Reed-Francois should be prepared to make her best offer the minute Buffalo is eliminated.