Arizona readying for confident Buffalo Bulls and their high-powered offense

So the Arizona Wildcats, who face Hurley at least twice a year, know what to expect Thursday in Boise when they take on the Buffalo Bulls in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

They play predominantly man-to-man, they love to push the ball in transition, they utilize the 3-point shot, they sub in a similar manner but they really have the ability to strike in transition and strike quickly, said Arizona coach Sean Miller.

Why not ’Zona? Teams like Virginia got higher seedings because of their tremendous defensive play, but the Wildcats have an unstoppable combo in the middle in Deandre Ayton, whose name has been synonymous with the mention of $100,000 in recent weeks, and 7-foot Dusan Ristic. They are the exception and not the norm in a college game that has been dominated by guards in the decades since Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon ruled the roost.

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They have a lot of different players who can score and they have an excellent low post player as well.

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Buffalo might be a 13-seed, but Miller cautioned that it is not a team to overlook. The Bulls have reached the NCAA Tournament — and won 20 or more games — three times in the last four years.

Yet, this is probably Buffalos best team. The Bulls have won a program-record 26 games this season, and posted a 15-3 record in the Mid-Atlantic Conference.

Many are dismissing Texas as a one-and-done, but I’m going to give Shaka Smart the benefit of the doubt against Nevada. The Wolf Pack can outshoot and outscore Texas, but I will wager that Mo Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski show up for this one while Snoop Roach gets back in the swing of things in a five-point win before the Horns exit the proceedings courtesy of No. 2 seed Cincinnati.

Buffalo also won its conference tournament in resounding fashion, tallying three double-digit wins to punch its ticket into the NCAA Tournament.

A quirk of Kentuckys NCAA Tournament draw and South Region is the number of teams that share the Wildcats nickname.

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So were dealing with a confident team, Miller said. A team that is able to beat anybody on their schedule including us, and we have to be ready to go.

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The Bulls are known for their high-octane offense. They play at the 15th-quickest pace in college basketball, and average 84.8 points per game.

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Buffalo has the No. 42 offense in the country, per KenPoms efficiency numbers. The Bulls shoot 37 percent from 3, and rely heavily on the long ball, which accounts for 40 percent of their shot attempts.

Arizona NCAA college basketball coach Sean Miller speaks at a press conference in Tucson, Ariz., Thursday, March 1, 2018. Miller vehemently shot down a report claiming he discussed a six-figure payment to a top recruit and said he looks forward to continuing to coach the team. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Led by CJ Massinburg (16.9), a member of the All-MAC First Team, Buffalo boasts four players who average double figures in scoring. All four are shooting 46 percent from the field or better, and three of those four are guards who shoot above 39 percent from 3.

6-foot-8 forward Nick Perkins (16.6 ppg), another member of the All-MAC First Team, holds things down in the paint.

Although brief with his response to the ESPN report, Miller offered much more on a variety of on-court topics, including how his team matches up against Buffalo and the Pac-12 Conferences representation in the NCAA Tournament.

They have outstanding guards, Miller said. A lot like the teams in our conference, they do a really, really good job of almost having a wing player at the 4 — (Jeremy) Harris, No. 2, whos an excellent offensive player. Its not just a point guard or a two. They play three or four guards at a time. They have very good depth. Some of the guys off the bench do the same thing. So I think between their depth and versatility of their guards … thats been their advantage all year.

While most college basketball writers, including Sports Illustrated’s staff, have Arizona losing in the Sweet 16 to No. 1 seed Virginia, CBS Sports Chip Patterson has the Wildcats going the farthest.

Arizonas style of play is a stark dichotomy. The Wildcats start two talented 7-footers in Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton, rank 215th in the country in pace, and only one-third of their shots are 3s.

Patterson has Arizona beating the North Carolina Tarheels, the defending champs, in the Final Four. He then, however, has Arizona losing to Villanova in the national championship game.

They play a style thats difficult to defend, Miller said of Buffalo.

Following a dominant Pac-12 Tournament performance from Deandre Ayton and Arizona, some experts are high on the Wildcats after filling out their NCAA Tournament brackets.

Buffalo surely feels the same way about Arizona. The Bulls struggle on defense, ranking 136th in efficiency, per KenPom.

This would be the farthest the Wildcats have gone since 2015 when Arizona was eliminated in the Elite Eight against the Wisconsin Badgers.

Arizona hasnt been all that great on that side of the floor either, but it showed drastic improvement when it won the Pac-12 Tournament, holding all three opponents under 70 points.

Thus, the Wildcats defensive efficiency jumped from the high 90s in KenPoms team rankings to 70 in just three days.

Our defense was one of the best of the year so far, Ristic said. So this is an example of how we should play from this point on. I think if our defense is clicking were going to be unbeatable.

After playing three games in three days in Las Vegas, Arizona took Sunday off before returning to practice Monday. Pretty soon the Wildcats will be back on a plane headed for Boise for Thursdays tournament opener.

It is a quick turnaround, to be sure, but not much different from a Pac-12 road trip, Miller noted.

You gotta be really careful because of the workload on our players both in practice and in the games, he said. With that, we have to be smart in our preparation. I think the last thing we want to do on Thursday night playing against Buffalo is (having) our tank on empty. We want to make sure we give our guys enough time to recuperate and make sure that were sharp and ready to go.

KenPom gives the Wildcats a 72-percent chance of beating Buffalo. If they do, they will likely face a supremely-talented Kentucky team in the Round of 32 on Saturday (assuming UK avoids an upset to Davidson).

The possibility of an Arizona-Kentucky matchup is drawing a lot of buzz around the country, but Miller isnt willing to look ahead just yet.

Were entering a four-team tournament, he said. That second (game) wont come if you dont advance.

Unlike years past, there is no definitive team that looks to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field. The likes of Villanova and Virginia will coast through their opening round games, but the big question is what lower seeded teams are capable of knocking off a higher seeded team in the first round.

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Arizona enters the tournament as the Pac-12 champions with a 27-7 record. They feature 71 consensus All-American Deandre Ayton who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

Buffalo got into the tournament by winning the MAC with a 26-8 record. The Bulls feature a quartet of scorers who all averaged between 14.6 to 16.9 points per game highlighted by 63 Jr. guard CJ Massinburg and 68 Jr. forward Nick Perkins who were both named first team all-conference.

The Pac-12 hasnt been as good this year as it has in years past, and that was evident by the selection committee only giving Arizona a No. 4 seed as a major conference champion.

The Wildcats have struggled in neutral site games. They lost three games in a row in the Bahamas back in November to NC State, SMU and Purdue; theyll be playing against Buffalo on a neutral site in Boise, ID.

Buffalo ranks No. 7 in the country in scoring offense (84.8 points per game), and they rank No. 21 in 3-point field goals made. To translate those stats for you; Buffalo can shoot from anywhere and they can score in bunches. And although Sean Miller has made Arizona a tough defensive team in years past, this years squad has struggled on defense.

Look for Buffalo to come out shooting. If they can make a few big shots early, then it could give them the belief that they can pull off the upset against heavily-favored Arizona.

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