BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – “Appreciation” and “opportunity” were words UB head coach Jim Whitesell used many times when talking about his team playing in the NIT.
“You’re definitely going to be disappointed because you didn’t make the NCAA tournament, that’s the goal every year in our program is play championship level and win the conference and play in the NCAA tournament. But to have this opportunity for our guys I think is a great thing,” Whitesell said Tuesday on a zoom call with reporters.
“It’s making the conference look real strong, making a better look on the conference for teams like us and Toledo to get in the NIT I feel like that’s bringing a lot of recognition to us and how strong our conference and the teams that are in this conference,” UB junior Ronaldo Segu said.
The Bulls could not complete the “three-peat” and win three straight MAC championships as they lost to Ohio on Saturday in the conference title game. Since a new champion was never crowned last year due to the pandemic cutting the tournament short, UB was the defending champ.
“From my perspective, let’s not kid each other, I was pretty bummed out all day Sunday. My wife’s trying to cheer my up and I’m not buying it,” Whitesell laughed.
But even coming up short, the Bulls have at least one more game to play as they take on Colorado State in the NIT on Friday night.
“We’ve always tried to be, go for an at-large bid and obviously this year we had some high major games, some great games wiped out because of Covid but we generally try to schedule to give us a chance but obviously we knew once we got into conference play it’s only going to be one team going so you’re incredibly disappointed after that,” Whitesell said.
And this is something Whitesell knows is a big deal, playing another game on national television against teams that all were close to making the big dance. Whitesell talked about the history of the tournament with his team and asked his players who won the last NIT before LaQuill Hardnett said Texas.
“I go you’re right. I said what did Texas do this weekend? They won the Big 12 tournament. What’s their seed? They’re the third seed. So I think it definitely helps your program in the long run also,” Whitesell explained.
“When we figured out we were playing in the NIT, I was excited. Not a lot of teams are playing so for us to have a chance to go out there and compete for a championship like the NIT is really good for us,” Segu said.
This is yet another example of Buffalo’s reputation over the years. The Bulls first won the MAC tournament in 2015 under head coach Bobby Hurley. Then when Hurley left, that success continued as Nate Oats led UB to a second straight MAC championship.
They were knocked out early in 2017 but then once again won back-to-back MAC titles in 2018 and 2019 with both of those trips to the NCAA tournament coming out with wins. In 2018, the Bulls upset four-seeded Arizona before losing to Kentucky. The year after UB was the favor in their first-round game as the six seed beating 11 seed Arizona State before losing to Texas Tech in the second-round.
And once again this season, the Bulls made it to the conference title game having won eight out of their last nine regular season games going into the MAC tournament. That past success combined with what they did this year certainly helped secure an NIT bid.
“I do think it shows a little bit of the credibility, the success of the program, the momentum we’ve gotten and also kind of like our brand of basketball. I think people recognize that and I think that’s a credit to our program,” Whitesell said.
“I was incredibly happy for our program because our program has been a championship level program and I talk to our players every day about our standard and what Buffalo basketball’s about for the University, the community and how much it means to us.”
Whitesell also said this is an opportunity for “redemption” as the Bulls are the four seed taking on one seeded Colorado State.
“The reason you got into the tournament is because you played so well. And you deserve to get in now it’s the idea hey look, one thing we’ve talked about with Covid all year long is just an appreciation to play. I think that’s so important for these guys. This is such a tough year for everyone and we’re so lucky to have an opportunity to play.”
Not to mention for the simple fact that this is another game the Bulls get to play and improve on moving into next season.
“Really valuable just to keep building our team because we have such a young base and a lot of returners coming back so it’s just to build us and work on us and look forward to the future and build off of it,” Segu explained.
The Bulls play on Friday, March 19th at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.