UB hoops adjusting to life outside NCAA tourney

The Associated PressBuffalo’s LaQuill Hardnett (1) and Ohio’s Jason Preston (0) compete for possession of the ball during the first half of the Mid-American Conference tournament championship game, March 13 in Cleveland.

For only the second time in seven years, the NCAA Tournament will tip-off without Buffalo in the bracket.

The Bulls, however, are marching forward on an alternate journey.

Selected to play in the National Invitational Tournament for second time in school history and first since 2005, UB will play Colorado State at 7 p.m. Friday night (ESPN2, 1520 AM) in Denton, Texas.

“Not a lot of teams are still playing,” UB guard Ronaldo Segu said. “So for us to be able to go down there and compete for a championship and play on TV is really good for us.”

UB (16-8) put itself in postseason contention by winning 10 of 11 games before losing against Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game last Saturday.

But with the NIT field reduced from 32 to 16 teams this season, invitations were harder to come by, and coach Jim Whitesell said the Bulls are proud to be among the field.

“I was incredibly happy for our program,” Whitesell said. “We have been a championship-level program and we talk to our players every day about our standard and what Buffalo basketball is all about, for the university, for the community and what it means for us to play in this tournament. …

“We are really excited about the opportunity to continue the season and play in this prestigious tournament. It’s incredibly hard to make the NIT period, let alone in this kind of situation, a pandemic, and all the craziness that has come across. To only have 16 teams, we are honored to be playing in it.”

Whitesell said the NIT bid is recognition for UB’s success in recent seasons, qualifying for the NCAA tournament four times in five seasons and winning first-round games in 2018 and 2019, along with his team’s strong performance down the stretch this year.

“It shows a little bit of the credibility, the success of the program, the momentum we’ve gotten and also our brand of basketball,” Whitesell said. “People recognize that and it’s a credit to our program.”

UB is one of two MAC teams in the field, along with regular season champion Toledo.

“It’s making our conference look real strong for us and Toledo to get in,” Segu said.

Extending the season with this Texas trip “is an opportunity for redemption,” after the disappointing MAC title game loss, Whitesell said.

“You are definitely going to be disappointed that you didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, that is the goal ever year in our program,” Whitesell said. “But to have this opportunity is a great thing for our guys.”

After hate-watching the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday, Whitesell was thrilled to hear UB’s name announced early in the NIT bracket reveal.

“I was the happiest man in Buffalo at 7:31 on Sunday night,” he said.

Back on the practice floor Monday, UB’s coaching staff educated the players on some of the NIT’s rich tradition, the well-known players who participated in the event over the years and how last year’s NIT champion, Texas, used that as a springboard into winning a conference title and gaining a No. 3 seed in the tournament this year.

“It will be really valuable for us to just keep building our team because we have such a young base and a lot of returners coming back,” Segu said.

Colorado State (18-6) was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament field and is the top seed in UB’s corner of the bracket.

“I told our guys this is like playing an NCAA Tournament game,” Whitesell said. “This is your first round opponent. Consider that you better be really ready to play and we are going to have to play a great game to win it.”

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