St. Bonaventure Buffalo Basketball

Buffalo head coach Nate Oats, front, and the Buffalo bench celebrate a three-point basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against St. Bonaventure in Olean, N.Y., Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

ST. BONAVENTURE — It might well be viewed as the six words that stoked the embers of an emerging, intriguing basketball rivalry.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Buffalo men’s coach Nate Oats tweeted Saturday night, an hour after his nationally-ranked Bulls handled St. Bonaventure, 80-62, inside the Reilly Center.

The tweet itself ­— a clear shot at the Bona fans who had chanted “we want UB” toward the end of the Bonnies’ win over Siena three nights earlier — was many things: spicy, spirited, even a bit surprising.

It also could be viewed as small-time for a coach whose team cracked the top 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll two days later.

Before Saturday, Oats was 1-4 against the Mark Schmidt-led Bonnies as both an assistant and head coach at UB, including home losses in 2015 and ‘17, and had never beaten them as the boss. In three of those instances, the Bulls’ eventual MAC Tournament championship campaigns were marked by setbacks to the Bonnies, including last year, when UB pounded Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, but lost to Schmidt’s team by double-digits in front of a mostly pro-Bona crowd inside Alumni Arena.

On Saturday, Oats’ best team to date, a group with Sweet 16 aspirations, topped a Bona team that is not only rebuilding in the post-Jaylen Adams era, but still down two starters and had only recently welcomed back its best player.

Perhaps the Bulls would still have beaten the Bonnies at full strength — they appear to be that good this season. But to fire off a tweet of that nature, after finally winning one under those circumstances, seemed a questionable move for a coach whose program still trails 10-2 in the all-times series.

Beyond the propriety of the tweet, however, it was also this: good for college basketball fans in Western New York.

IN THE DAYS leading up to the game, a Bona fan account asked the following poll question: is UB a “rival” of St. Bonaventure? Ostensibly, did the Bulls fit that profile given that Bona had won seven of eight meetings since they began playing annually in 2010, UB isn’t as long-standing a foe as Little 3 opponents Canisius and Niagara and the Buffalo fanbase hadn’t seemed to care all that much about its team — or its rivals — until just recently?

From here, it had become a rivalry in the loosest of ways: it was two teams located in the same geographical area that play each other annually and are members of the same subset: the Big Four.

Now, considering the aftermath of Saturday’s game, it has the potential to be so much more. And that’s a good thing for regional hoops fans and the officials at those schools who have yearned — sometimes fruitlessly through the double-header at KeyBank Center — to make the Big 4 and these geographical rivalries more relevant.

Oats’ tweet sparked a firestorm of social media trash talk between Bona fans and those who have begun to emerge for a UB program deserving of a strong following. Here was one of the better, and more printable, exchanges:

Bona fan: “Bonnies 6-0 (sic) going into today since (Oats has) been assistant or head coach. Congrats on finally beating us.”

UB fan: “Let me taste those tears.”

Bona fan: “You can taste the facts. Bonnies have owned UB.”

UB fan: “You can taste that the tide has changed and history is over now. Cheers to the new King UB.”

NIAGARA AND Canisius will continue to be a factor, but if any one of those Big 4 pairings has the ability to double as the game for annual supremacy in Western New York and draw even close to the national attention that, say, a Cincinnati-Xavier matchup receives, it would be Bona and UB.

These teams have combined for eight 20-win seasons, four conference tournament championships and five NCAA Tournament appearances since 2012 (each would have three trips had Bona been rightfully selected in 2016). They’ve been built into yearly league contenders by coaches who have been, or will be, the subject of a power conference coaching search.

Bona has always had the passionate fan base. Buffalo might be on the verge of that, and certainly has the means to create it with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 22,000. And now, after Saturday, these fan bases are actually beginning to genuinely dislike one another.

In a transition year for Bona, UB finally got the best of the Bonnies and sent a literal message about it in the process. You can bet Schmidt’s team will have not forgotten when it returns to Alumni Arena, where it’s won three of the last four, to face a Bulls group that loses much of its core next winter.

This is what a meaningful college basketball rivalry is all about.

(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at jbutler@oleantimesherald.com)

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