The surprise of getting a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament lasted only a few seconds for the University of Buffalo men's basketball team.
The Bulls anticipated they would be at least a five, and even as high as a four. But once the other matchup in UB's bracket was announced, a potential pairing for the Bulls suddenly became intriguing.
UB (31-3) will open the tournament against 11th-seeded Arizona State (22-10) or St. John's (21-12) in a first-round game at approximately 4 p.m. Friday (TNT) in Tulsa, Okla. Arizona State and St. John's will meet in a First Four game at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday (Tru TV) in Dayton, Ohio. Game time is 9:10 p.m.
The first-round matchup in the West region could pit the Bulls against former UB coach Bobby Hurley, who brought current UB coach Nate Oats to Buffalo as an assistant.
Hurley left UB to become the coach at Arizona State in April of 2015, and Oats was promoted to UB’s head coach less than a week after Hurley’s departure.
Oats, however, wasn’t keen on playing up the storyline of any relationships that continue between UB and Hurley.
“The only one on this team that does know (Hurley) is Nick (Perkins), because I was the assistant and Coach Hurley recruited him,” Oats said Sunday at Santora's in Williamsville, where UB learned of its NCAA Tournament destination at a watch party. “The media and everybody can write all about that. I don’t need our guys to think about any of that.
“To be honest, it could be St. John’s. They just need to be prepping for who they play. The good thing is, they have to play and prepare for us. The bad thing is, what do we do in tomorrow’s practice? We can’t practice for Arizona State or St. John’s, exclusively. We’ve got to get ready for both.”
Perkins, however, had an immediate thought when he realized there was a possibility he could face the coach who recruited him to Buffalo from Milan, Mich.
“It was like, ‘Wow, how ironic,’ ” Perkins said. “Obviously, Bobby’s the guy who hired Oats and who built the program before he left, and he’s a good guy. The city of the Buffalo, the media, everybody would love to see that. That would be a historic game.”
Oats elaborated, however, when discussing the Sun Devils' on-court product. Arizona State is playing in the First Four for the second consecutive year after losing to Syracuse last year.
“I definitely know Arizona State a lot more than I know about St. John’s,” Oats said. “They’ve been a little inconsistent shooting the ball, but when they’re on, they’re not an 11 seed, but St. John’s is the same way, though.”
After a 87-73 win against Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference tournament championship game Saturday in Cleveland, Oats and some of his players believed they would earn as high as either a four or a five seed.
“When they called ‘six,’ I was just really wondering who we’d play next,” UB guard Jayvon Graves said. “We can beat anybody they put in front of us, and I’m just confident in our team.”
When asked Saturday what seed he thought his team should receive, Oats said he thought the Bulls deserved a four seed, and that he would be disappointed with anything less than a five seed.
“We had the best record in college basketball,” Oats said Sunday. “We’re tied with Houston. Nobody has more wins than we do. A six is a little low. It is what it is. You look at the teams that are one through five, those are some pretty good teams.
“What was Marquette? Are they a five? Marquette beat us pretty decent (103-85) and they’re a five. I was hoping for a five, thinking we wouldn’t drop below a six. Yeah, right in there is where I thought we’d be.”
Duke athletic director Kevin White, a member of the NCAA's men's basketball selection committee, said Sunday on CBS that there was discussion among the committee as to whether UB should be seeded higher.
"I would say yes, to be very honest and pointed," White said. "But I think we got it about right. Obviously, I'm not objective. I have 10 colleagues with me, there are 10 of us on the committee, and we looked really hard. It's just not about your resume, it's about the resumes with in your neighborhood, that are kind of in the beltway right around you. And I think we got Buffalo right in the place where they deserve to be."
With the help of nonconference wins against Syracuse and San Francisco as well as several blowout wins in their MAC schedule, the Bulls have been among the top 50 teams in the NCAA’s NET rankings since November, and finished the regular season and the MAC Tournament at No. 15. The NET is a sorting tool the NCAA tournament selection committee used to determine the 68-team field for the first time.
This is Buffalo’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance, and the highest seed it’s earned in the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo was a 12 seed in 2015, a 14 seed in 2016 and a 13 seed in 2018, when it beat Arizona in the first round.
Buffalo’s 6 seed is also the highest seed for a MAC team in the 64-team tournament.
The highest seed a MAC team has earned in the 68-team field prior to this year is a 9 seed: Ball State was a 9 seed in 1989, Eastern Michigan in 1996 and Kent State in 2008.
Toledo was a 5 seed in a 40-team field in 1979, and Miami (Ohio) was an 8 seed in a 53-team field in 1984.