New York State In-depth

Blue Collar U players continue to put Buffalo basketball on the map | Sports

DAYTON, Ohio — In their pursuit of championship glory and the $1 million purse that comes with The Basketball Tournament title, the Blue Collar U alumni team has brought invaluable brand exposure and pride to the University at Buffalo basketball community it represents.

Team leaders CJ Massinburg and Nick Perkins termed tonight’s nationally-televised TBT final against Americana for Autism as the biggest game of their careers.

“The intensity is going to be off the charts,” Massinburg said.

“It’s something you cherish,” Perkins added.

Supporters in Western New York share the excitement.

Buzz for the Bulls on parade has extended to alumni engagement events, season ticket-holder email blasts, youth basketball camp and summer workouts for the present team — even University President Satish Tripathi’s cabinet meeting.

“That’s what people are talking about,” said Mark Alnutt, VP and director of athletics. “Not just in my athletics report. It’s one of the topics brought up by fellow vice presidents. Our provost talked about it. That’s something that obviously means a lot for this university. It bodes well for the level of interest people have for our athletic programs.”

After the BCU squad shared its championship-caliber wisdom with the current UB team during training camp at Alumni Arena, coach Jim Whitesell used video from the TBT games as an introductory lesson to the blue-collar principles that guided the Bulls to four Mid-American Conference titles, two NCAA tournament victories and a top-15 ranking in 2019.

“We’re showing our guys how competitive they are, how unselfish they are,” Whitesell said. “We want our team to emulate that. The competitive drive of the guys is the most noticeable thing. We try to teach our guys that it’s a skill they can learn and develop. It’s been really fun to watch, and our players are excited to see how far they’ve gone.”

On the recruiting trail, “we bring this up with every player we talk to,” Whitesell said. “We point to the success they can have as they get to the next level and beyond.”

With tonight’s championship being the fifth televised game for BCU — and fourth on the primary ESPN channel — Buffalo basketball has been displayed in its full glory to an increasingly wider audience only matched by NCAA tournament games shown on CBS and TNT.

During their championship heyday from 2015-19, the Bulls never appeared on ESPN. They had a handful of games aired on ESPN2, along with several broadcast by ESPN3, CBSN and other cable channels with national distribution but much lower viewership.

The average audience for college basketball games on ESPN (928,000) last season was more than three-times larger than ESPN2 (281,000) and 17-times greater than ESPNU (54,000), according to Sports Business Journal. The audience for TBT championship games on ESPN in recent years has ranged from 250,000 to 400,000, according to various reports.

“It’s more reach for us when we are on that ESPN platform,” Alnutt said. “There are more eyes that have the opportunity to watch and know the story. It’s something that can reap benefits for the university in regards to the exposure this team is getting.”

Among the most captivated in that television audience has been former UB coach Nate Oats, watching from Alabama.

“I’m pulling for them as hard as I can,” Oats said during an interview on the Tim Graham and Friends podcast. “Those guys won us a lot of games. I wouldn’t be at Alabama if it wasn’t for those guys playing in this tournament. A couple of them I coached in high school, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have gotten to Buffalo. and we’ve got some of our Bama guys coaching them.”

“Everyone can see why we were able to win as many games as we did,” said Oats, who plans to attend tonight’s game at University of Dayton Arena two days before leading the Crimson Tied on an overseas trip, along with his assistants, BCU general manager Bryan Hodgson and coach Adam Bauman.

“There may be some more talented teams in the tournament,” Oats added. “But there’s nobody that plays harder every possession, and plays more together, than Blue Collar U is doing right now.”

The past three TBT champions have been alumni teams representing Syracuse, Marquette and Ohio State — richer programs from major conferences. If the Bulls can elevate into that class, it would raise the profile of Buffalo basketball.

“We’ve got to win one more,” Oats said. “It would be outstanding to win the whole thing. It’s huge for Buffalo. It shows you can go to a place like Buffalo and still have a high level of success. You can go to Buffalo and still make a lot of money.”

Advancing through the TBT bracket also has given the Bulls an expanded platform to memorialize the lives lost in the racially motivated mass shooting at Tops in Buffalo. Each player’s jersey has the name of one of the 10 victims or “BUFFALO STRONG” on the back. After each victory, players remove the jerseys, place them in a circle and the floor, and pray together.

Alnutt praised the UB alumni “for really paying their respects to the victims of the Tops shooting and really bringing more awareness to the tragic events that occurred in May.”

“We are playing for them in the Buffalo community,” said starting forward Blake Hamilton, who suggested the tribute. “Showing we are part of the community, us being African-American males. That matters to us. We want change.”

“Playing with their names on the back is giving us motivation,” reserve guard Lamonte Bearden said.

“It’s bigger than us,” Perkins said. “It’s bigger than basketball.”

“It means everything,” Massinburg said, “to be able to play this high-stakes game for something other than myself.”

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