Don’t get him wrong. Ronaldo Segu has nothing against Nate Oats. The man brought him to Buffalo, took him on an unforgettable ride in his first year at UB. But Segu admits he felt a sense of abandonment when Oats left the Bulls to take the head coaching job at Alabama three days after his freshman season ended.
“When I first came here, one of the first questions I asked him was, ‘Are you going to stay here all four years?’” Segu recalled after practice Tuesday. “You could never be mad at him because he’s got to feed his family. But when he left, I was like, ‘Damn.’
“I didn’t really know what to do, so I went back home.”
Home was Florida. Orlando. Segu fielded calls from schools that wanted him to transfer. He watched the transactions, talked with teammates, and waited to see who UB would hire. A few days later, he got the news he was hoping for: The Bulls had made Jim Whitesell the permanent head coach.
Segu had been recruited by Oats and assistant Brian Hodgson, who went with Oats to Alabama. But it was Whitesell, as associate head coach, who became a mentor and confidant for Segu and fellow freshman Jeenathan Williams when they played sparingly for that historic UB team in 2018-19.
“He really helped guide us through that freshman year,” said Segu, a 6-foot point guard. “So, when he got the job, he called me and there was nothing to be said. I knew I was coming back. I had already built a strong relationship with him.”
They had a near-impossible task — to follow the greatest season in UB hoops history. That ’19 team went 32-4 and became the first Buffalo-area team to be nationally ranked in nearly 50 years. They reached the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years and won a game in the Dance for the second year in a row.
It was a tough act to follow, but Segu and the Bulls have remained competitive under Whitesell. They won 20 games two years ago but were upset at home in the opening round of the MAC tourney. They surged from a 6-6 start to finish 16-9 last year and earn an NIT bid after losing in the MAC Tournament final as a No. 2 seed.
The pandemic was an unforeseen impediment, canceling the 2020 postseason and causing disruptions in the 2020-21 season, when 10 UB players tested positive at some point and Whitesell had to quarantine for two weeks — coaching from the stands one night — when his wife contracted the virus.
Through it all, Segu continued to evolve as a player and leader. As a sophomore, he was named the MAC’s Sixth Man of the Year. Last season, he averaged 13.3 points a game and raised his game down the stretch. He scored a career-high 24 points in the Bulls’ loss to Ohio in the MAC title game.
‘Rondo’ Segu has gotten off to a terrific start as a senior. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 5.1 assists for UB, which will take a 6-3 record into Saturday’s game with local rival Canisius in the 5 p.m. finale of the Big 4 Tripleheader at KeyBank Center.
“Rondo just loves the game,” Whitesell said, “and he wants to get better every day. I absolutely love coaching him. He’s been a joy to coach and every year he’s gotten significantly better because of his hard work.
“Along with it, he really studies it. He’ll come in on a day when he didn’t play very well and he’ll make the adjustments. He’s a good learner that way. He knows he’s got plenty more to get better at.”
Segu has worked tirelessly on his shooting. If you check out one of his YouTube videos, you’ll probably find him working on his jumper. Catch, fake, shoot. Catch, fake, shoot. It helps. This year, he’s making 47.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and 44.7 percent of his threes, both career highs by a wide margin.
His confidence is at an all-time high. Watching Segu in the MAC championship game in March, you could sense that he was ready to go to another level, and that in 2021-22 the Bulls would become his team.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s a product of my work. I’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason and I’m happy it’s all coming together and the team is starting to jell together, starting to play with each other even more. I’m just excited that we’re getting comfortable with each other.”
Later, while Whitesell spoke, Segu was working on his shot with an assistant coach. He was the last Bull on the floor after practice ended during finals week.
“That’s him to a T,” Whitesell said. “He loves the gym. I keep trying to tell him, when you’re done playing you should go into coaching. He’d be a good one. He thinks I’m crazy. But he loves basketball so much, I think once he’s done playing, he’ll find something in basketball. Who knows? Maybe a GM somewhere.”
For now, Segu has more immediate concerns. He and Williams, who leads UB in scoring at 19.1 points a game (34th in the nation, as of Wednesday) are looking to get the Bulls back to the NCAA Tournament in their senior season.
The Bulls have won four of five, with the only loss a one-pointer at previously ranked St. Bonaventure. After Saturday’s game against Canisius at the Arena, they host Cal-Irvine on Tuesday, then get an eight-day Christmas break before opening conference play at home on Dec. 29 against Miami of Ohio.
As the point guard, Segu is the on-floor leader, the proverbial coach on the floor. Whitesell says he’s a natural leader. He told Segu when he was a sophomore he should lead more, even when he was coming off the bench.
“I was always in the gym, leading by example,” Segu said. “He didn’t want me to get on guys, but to help them, encourage guys, show them what to do, because I’ve been here and been on a championship team.
“As a point guard, you have to know how everybody’s feeling, what they like doing, just getting to know everybody on your team, that’s the most important thing for the point guard position.”
Whitesell said the message can be more effective at times when it comes from a teammate rather than “the old coach.”
“He’s gotten better at it,” Whitesell said. “We want more guys to follow him. I tell the guys: Lead or follow, but be one of the two. He’s done a good job of picking that up and being a good example. But he’s a lot more vocal with the guys than he was a year ago. His basketball IQ is very high, and he’s got a real caring heart.”
Segu certainly isn’t lacking for followers. He has 144,000 followers on Instagram. He gained many while in high school, when he and Nassir Little (now with Portland in the NBA) were leading Orlando Christian Prep to state titles and gaining a large social media following with their videos.
Early in Segu’s freshman season, UB won a game against San Francisco in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Nick Perkins was being interviewed after having a big game. But a group of Irish kids came up and excitedly asked the UB people about Rondo (Segu’s nickname). He hadn’t even scored a point.
The kid has charisma, that’s for sure. Segu said he’s undecided whether to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted to all players due to Covid-19. He wants to go pro, like the top players from the Oats era. Whitesell likes his chances. He said Segu is skinny but strong, and one of the most unheralded defensive players in the league.
“I tell him all the time, ‘Look, you can be one of the best guards in this league or one of the best players in this league,’” Whitesell said. “Keep evolving, keep working on it.”
Work isn’t a problem for Segu, an African-American Studies major who is also studying communication. His mother and stepfather, Marie and Louis Aladin, came to this country from Haiti. That country has been ravaged by natural disasters, poverty and political strife, so being in the United States is a blessing.
“My grandma, all of them, are from Haiti,” Segu said. “It’s kind of harsh there. Just coming from there, we didn’t have much growing up. Whatever my mom could provide, we made do. It gave me a chance to be successful in life. I can’t complain.”
He’s glad he stayed in Buffalo. He’s true to Whitesell — “White,’ as he calls him — and would love to help his coach win the MAC title and get to the NCAAs for the first time as a head man. Nothing against Oats, mind you, but Segu thinks it’s time this team forged a separate identity from those great teams.
“That team left a very big impact on us,” Segu said. “They showed us how to conduct ourselves as champions and how to win games. This program has been going to the tournament for a long time. So I want to continue that tradition.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.