TULSA, Okla. – For the second straight time this tournament, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley is matched up against a familiar face on the opposite bench.
First, it was St. John’s coach and fellow East Coast basketball icon Chris Mullin in the First Four on Wednesday.
Now, Hurley finds himself coaching for his team’s NCAA Tournament survival against his former team, Buffalo – coached by his former associate coach – Nate Oats.
“We speak frequently, and we root for each other,” Hurley said. “So, any time you have to go against that team, it’s not the greatest scenario, but then as a coach you think about all the work you put in and how hard your players work, July through the fall and all these battles you’re in during the season, to even get yourself in a position to be in this tournament.
“And once you’re here, everything goes out the window and you’re just trying to compete like heck to advance and make your season more special.”
Still, as Oats said, it’s “not an ideal situation to have to play him because … we’d both like to see each other continue to go, and one of us is not going to be able to continue.”
No. 11 seed Arizona State will face No. 6 seed Buffalo Friday afternoon in the Round of 64 in Tulsa, Okla. Although the odds of these two teams meeting in the first round – out of the entire 68-team field – were slim, Hurley had his suspicions that his current team could meet his former team in the first round when he hosted his players for a Selection Sunday party at his home and watched the teams slowly be revealed.
“You know, our administrators, my wife, my brother, talking to my brother on the phone he was like I have a feeling that they’re – Buffalo is in that 6 range and I see you as an 11 seed,” Hurley said. “I don’t think Dan (Hurley) thought we would be in the play-in game, but he thought there could be a chance that this might happen.
“So, I gave it some thought then, but then as the show proceeded I knew that what we had done this year and the wins we had and our record in the league and that we’d be in the field and spots were limited at that moment. So I knew that something might be in the works there when I saw that.”
Hurley’s first head coaching job was Buffalo, where he was from 2013 to 2015, leading the Bulls to the NCAA Tournament in his second season. Before that, while an assistant at Rhode Island, Hurley was recruiting a Michigan high school standout and was impressed by that player’s coach.
It was Oats, whom Hurley added to Buffalo staff when the school hired him.
Although a lot of this game’s narrative revolves around Hurley’s unlikely reunion with Oats and Buffalo, Hurley is insistent that the game be about his players, and the work they have put in all season to make it this far.
“So, that’s where my thoughts are,” Hurley said. “My thoughts are only with like Remy Martin, Lu Dort, Zylan Cheatham, and the guys that I’m bringing to battle tomorrow.”
Point guard Martin agreed with his coach’s sentiment and downplayed the attention his coach is receiving once again for the serendipity of their tournament seeding.
“No. It’s all about the team,” Martin said. “This is about us and our future and it’s just all about the team, what we need to do to be successful, and it’s not about him. He’s never been a me guy. Everything that he says or does is for all of us.”
Cheatham seconded the notion that this game – and this tournament – is about the team, and not any one player, or coach.
“He’s done a really good job, kind of making it our journey as opposed to his,” Cheatham said. “That was his message: ‘Don’t really get too far into the whole emotional impact this game could have on me or something like that. I want you guys to stay focused. I’ve already did what I did in college and I’ve made my journey. It’s you guy’s turn.’ ‘He’s doing a good job of not making it about himself.”
Despite Hurley having once been Oats’ boss, as a No. 11 seed that had to play-in to the first round of the tournament, Arizona State is the underdog coming into its matchup against Buffalo.
“But when the ball goes up, they have a lot of winners in their locker room,” Hurley said. “They’re a team that’s won 31 games. they’re a mid-major that doesn’t play like it. They don’t look like it. You know, they have all the ingredients of a top team, and so we’re going to have our hands full.”
The spotlight is on Hurley once again headed into Friday’s game, but one the game begins, the outcome will be decided by the players on the floor.
“They’re a great team, we know that,” Martin said. “We know their record speaks for itself. They’re a winning team. We know that they’re going to come out and play hard. It’s going to be a fun game.”
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