DURHAM, N.C. – The University at Buffalo embarked Friday on the toughest two-game road trip in the history of its men’s basketball program.
It might be the toughest two-game road trip UB ever will take.
The Bulls visit defending national champion and No. 7-ranked Duke Saturday at famed Cameron Indoor Stadium. Then the Bulls fly to Iowa City, Iowa, to face No. 5-ranked Iowa State on Monday night.
What might UB get out of it besides some memorable experiences and two lopsided losses?
Toughness ... the Bulls hope.
Last year UB played non-conference games at Kentucky and Wisconsin, ranked Nos. 1 and 6, respectively at the time. (The games were not back-to-back.) The Bulls are convinced those games made them more battle tested during their run to the Mid-American Conference title.
“We’re going to go in and look at it like we looked at Kentucky,” said UB point guard Lamonte Bearden. “We’re going to go in and play our hardest because we’re underdogs. We have nothing to lose.
“These games help us because later in the year we’ll know we’ve been through hard games. We understand there’s not as much talent on the other team as we’ll have seen at Duke. So I think it does make a difference and makes it easier and not intimidating when we go to tough places in our conference.”
The Duke game was signed in June, largely because Duke Athletic Director Kevin White is the father of UB’s outgoing athletic director, Danny White. The Iowa State game was secured earlier, when Fred Hoiberg still was Cyclones coach. UB coach Nate Oats is friends with Hoiberg, who in June left to become Chicago Bulls head coach.
UB thought it was going to be the favorite in the MAC when it scheduled the games. Since the dismissal of star forward Justin Moss, the Bulls are viewed as a middle-of-the-pack MAC team.
Oats believes in upping the competitive ante for his squad early in the season.
“Even when I was in high school, I tried to schedule the best teams we possibly could,” said Oats, referring to his days as one of Michigan’s top prep coaches. “I’m not one of those guys who has to play four non-Division I’s to get to 20 wins. I don’t really care about that.”
“I think we go into Duke, we play hard, we learn how to compete and we get better,” Oats said. “Then we do the same thing at Iowa State. Those games make you better in March if you handle them the right way, as opposed to playing a Division II or Division III team.”
UB’s offense is a work in progress with five new players among the top eight in the rotation.
“We’ve got to get better offensively, and I don’t know that Duke’s the game to get better offensively, with all the athletes they have everywhere,” Oats said.
“But I do think we have some guys who can play better than they’ve been playing. I think we’ve got some athletes. ... I think we proved it last year at Kentucky. Bearden played well. Jarryn Skeete played well. Rodell Wigginton played well. Blake Hamilton can go at those guys. We’ve got some guys who can play athletically.
Here’s what’s facing the Bulls on their trip:
Duke: Three players from last year’s roster went one-and-done and were first-round NBA draft picks. The big loss was center Jalil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick. Duke doesn’t have a player to match his low-post offense. But coach Mike Krzyzewski reloaded with the No. 2-rated recruiting class in the nation (behind Kentucky). It includes small forward Brandon Ingram (rated No. 4 in the nation), point guard Derryck Thornton (No. 14), center Chase Jeter (No. 16) and off-guard Luke Kennard (No. 25). Duke has seven McDonald’s high school All-Americas on the roster. The recruits join a roster that includes elite 6-5 defender Matt Jones, low posts Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee and 6-5 sophomore Grayson Allen, who starred in the national title game vs. Wisconsin. Duke will suffocate teams with Krzyzewski’s man-to-man defense.
Iowa State: The Cyclones return four starters from a team that went 25-9 last year and was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa State lost in the second round. Hoiberg was replaced by Steve Prohm, who won big at Murray State. He walks into a full house.
Iowa State has a balanced attack led by 6-8 Georges Niang, a first-team preseason All-America. He is an elite wing who can play any position, including “point-forward.” Niang is averaging 16.3 ppg. His outside shot needs a little work, and his lack of defensive foot-speed likely will keep him from being a first-round NBA draft pick. But he’s too versatile on offense for most college forwards to handle.