‘Bucky Ball’ awaits KU challenge

The upstart Samford Bulldogs, under fourth-year head coach Bucky McMillan, will present a frenetic, 3-point-focused attack against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament Thursday. It's a dream situation for McMillan, who won five Alabama state championships as a high school coach before ascending to the college ranks.



March 19, 2024 - 1:54 PM

Before taking over at Samford, Bucky McMillan was a five-time state champion head coach at a high school in his native Alabama. Photo by TNS file photo

Bucky McMillan was a Birmingham teenager the last time Samford went to the NCAA Tournament, on his way to being a player at one hometown college and then a highly successful coach at a local high school.

McMillan stayed put for his next role, too, with similar results.

The fourth-year Samford coach has led the 13th-seeded Bulldogs (29-5) to their best season ever and into the NCAA field for the first time since 2000. The Southern Conference champions face No. 4-seed Kansas in the first round on Thursday in Salt Lake City as one of college basketball’s highest scoring teams.

Bucky Ball is flying high.

“It’s a lot of excitement, man,” said McMillan, the SoCon coach of the year three times running. “And to do it here with a lot of people from this city that I’ve known my whole life …”

He doesn’t have to finish the sentence. The 40-year-old McMillan grew up five miles from the Samford campus in suburban Birmingham, experiencing the excitement when Jimmy Tillette’s 1999 and 2000 teams made the NCAA Tournament.

He never left his city behind, nor his fast-paced brand of basketball. Bucky Ball is a style the former Birmingham-Southern point guard has been employing — with or without the catchy nickname — since he was a 15-year-old coaching an AAU team.

The high-pressure style worked in AAU ball. In two seasons as junior varsity coach at alma mater Mountain Brook. And in 12 seasons as varsity coach — starting at age 24 — when he led Mountain Brook to five state titles from 2013-19 in the state’s largest classification.

McMillan remembers facing doubters “every step of the way” that his style would actually work. He has led Samford to a 71-27 record over the last three seasons after struggling in a pandemic-shortened debut campaign.

He inherited a team that was 325 in the NET rankings and coming off a 10-23 season. The Baptist university of fewer than 6,000 students had only made March Madness twice, in 1999 and 2000. Samford is 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games.

McMillan said the feeling was the same in every big win or tournament championship along the way. A win now, however, would be different.

“Winning with a bunch of guys you like doing it with feels the same,” he said. “Now I can’t say it’s going to feel the same when we step into that NCAA Tournament, because that’s something that we all watched growing up. I get to be a part of that. That’s emotional thinking about that.”

The Bulldogs, who lost their season opener to No. 3 Purdue, 98-45, feel like their fast-paced style could bedevil bigger-name opponents enough for a tourney breakthrough.

“I feel like we play a unique style of basketball, and the college world’s not used to it,” forward Jermaine Marshall said. “I feel like we will catch a lot of people by surprise. They’re probably just gonna look and say, ‘Oh, Samford, I’ve never heard of them.’ I feel like that’s how we’re going to get them.

“Once we mess their bracket up early, I feel like that’s how we’re going to get a lot of people’s attention. They’re just going to fall in love with the style of basketball that we play.”