Before members of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team finished applauding their draw for the NCAA Tournament, coach Nate Oats turned to forward Nick Perkins and told him he had better be ready.
UB, and Perkins in particular, will have its hands full with fourth-seeded Arizona in their first-round game Thursday in Boise, Idaho, which will begin at roughly 9:45 p.m. after the conclusion of 7:10 game between 5-Kentucky and 12-Davidson.
Arizona (27-7) is not only the Pac-12 champion but also boasts 7-foot-1, 250-pound freshman Deandre Ayton, who is expected to be a top pick in this year’s NBA draft. He averages 20.3 points per game and 11.5 rebounds.
“They’re talented. It’s going to be a war for sure,” Oats said. “I told our bigs, you want to be a pro? I turned to Perkins – he’s got his hands full. Ayton might be the No. 1 pick in the draft. I will say this though: You usually win in the NCAA Tournament with guards. I like our guard play against them.”
Oats has seen Arizona play several times on television and will likely pick the brain of former UB coach Bobby Hurley (under whom Oats was an assistant coach), who is now the coach at Arizona State and knows Arizona well.
“I already got a text from one of the assistants, ‘give me a call, we’ll talk Arizona,’ ” Oats said, less than 15 minutes after learning their opponent. “So I’ll be giving him a call for sure.”
This is UB’s third NCAA Tournament appearance. In 2016, Oats’ first year as head coach, the Bulls lost to 3-Miami as a 14-seed, 79-72. In 2015, they were a 12-seed under Hurley and lost to 5-West Virginia 68-62.
Oats was disgruntled with being a 13-seed this year because he believes this year’s team is better than UB’s previous tournament teams. The only opponents UB lost to out of conference (Cincinnati, San Diego State, St. Bonaventure, Syracuse and Texas A&M) all made the NCAA Tournament.
“I thought we got a little (cheated) but it is what it is,” Oats said. “I think this team’s better. But the NCAA committee didn’t think so. So we have to go out there and prove them wrong.”
UB learns its fate. It is a 13-seed playing 4-Arizona in Boise, Idaho. pic.twitter.com/McERei2pbg
— Nick Veronica (@NickVeronica) March 11, 2018
Senior guard Wes Clark agreed.
“Yeah, I mean, selections is difficult I guess,” Clark said. “You can’t necessarily be mad. We’re happy to be there. So I guess a 13-seed is where they felt like we should be.”
UB is ranked 25th nationally in the Rating Percentage Index but 77th on advanced stat site Kenpom.com. Arizona, which was ranked third in the AP’s preseason poll, is now 14th in RPI and 21st on Kenpom.
“I think it’s a pretty good matchup,” said Perkins, who stands at 6-8, 250 and can also shoot threes. “They got a lot of size on the inside and we got a really quick team. I think we can put the big guy in a lot of ball screens and see, can he guard on the outside? We’re gonna see, can they guard? Obviously they can play a little bit of offense, we know that; we’re going to see, can they play defense? I don’t think they’ve seen anything like us all year, a team who can get out and run, got some size.
“They dump the ball into the big fella a few times, he’s pretty good on the glass,” Perkins added. “He’s big inside. They have a really good guard, a scorer. It’s pretty much a two-hand punch, a guard and a big. That’s something that we can stop. I feel we can go out there and get the win.”
UB has size in the MAC, but hasn’t seen much like Arizona. They boast another 7-foot starter in center Dusan Ristic. The guard Perkins mentioned is Allonzo Trier (18.4 ppg), a former top recruit who was the subject of a lengthy New York Times profile as a middle schooler.
The Wildcats made it to the Sweet 16 last year before being upset by Xavier. The program has been rattled in recent weeks after an ESPN report that the FBI is investigating Arizona and coach Sean Miller for an alleged $100,000 payment to land Ayton, but that didn’t seem to bother the team en route to the Pac-12 tournament championship.
Still, Perkins remained confident.
“Really, their inside presence and their guard play – I feel like if you can stop that, they’re not as deep as us,” Perkins said. “They probably play about six or seven guys so they’re bench isn’t as deep. So really if we can get out and run on them, get them a little tired we can come out with the win.”
UB has three players with NCAA Tournament experience: Perkins, CJ Massinburg and Ikenna Smart. Oats said the only injury they have is his own throat – he nearly lost his voice after screaming so much in the MAC Tournament.