BOISE, Idaho – Arizona sophomore guard Rawle Alkins: “We know that they play a fast tempo. And they have four guards on the court at all times.”
UA junior guard Allonzo Trier: “They have a great pace. We also understand that they’re (among) the top … scoring teams in the country.”
Wildcats senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright: “They’re experienced. … They’ve got a great coach.”
If you’d have read these quotes a month or two ago, you might have assumed they were about Arizona State. Since you’re reading them at the start of the NCAA Tournament, you probably correctly assumed they apply to the University at Buffalo.
It makes sense. Five years ago, ASU coach Bobby Hurley hired Nate Oats as his top assistant, and together they transformed Buffalo from an average mid-major program to a perennial NCAA Tournament contender.
This year, the Bulls finished the regular season 26-8, a school record for wins. They score 84.8 points per game, good for seventh in the nation and only 0.02 points from being in the top five. They play an up-tempo, position-less style of basketball that led to four players scoring more than 14 points per game. They’ve won the Mid-American Conference tournament championship three of the past four years and this season won the league outright for the first time.
It sounds good, but …
It’s the sort of resume that makes it sound credible when the blue bloods start saying all the right things.
“Buffalo is a really good team,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Any team that you play in this tournament is capable of beating the other team because of the great parity in college basketball.
“If you’re from the MAC and you win the regular-season championship and you follow that up with the tournament championship, you’re a really, really good team.”
And while all of that’s true, please let’s cut through all of it and speak very plainly: If UA is on, Buffalo doesn’t stand a chance.
“They’ve got like four or five pros,” Oats told me after an open practice Wednesday ahead of first-round NCAA Tournament play.
“You’ve got three on everybody’s draft board. Rawle and Trier and Ayton are all supposed to go. Well, to me (Dusan) Ristic looks like me might be a pro, too, with the way the game is and how skilled he is. So, you got four there, for sure. And Jackson-Cartwright ain’t bad.”
Oats is a tough, frank, gritty guy who’s only a few years removed from roaming high school sidelines in Michigan.
He clearly knows what he’s doing and is running a rising program that represents the future of basketball – fluid, skilled and player-driven, rather than traditional, staid and coach-focused.
It’s up to UA to play strong from the opening tip to make sure Oats and crew don’t represent the now.
Oats, who recently received a contract extension after guiding his team to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, has a strategy.
“They’re not deep,” Oats said. “So we’re gonna try to run them. I’m not giving any secrets away, that’s how we play anyway.
“Ayton, now one thing we haven’t done much this year is double the post. Well, he’s not somebody you can play one on one. So, we’re gonna have to mess with our doubles.”
Ayton is a great passer, “but what are you gonna do, play him one on one? So, you try to limit his catches, but even that, he’s 7-1, 280, and he moves so well you can’t completely limit his catches.
“We’re gonna have to trade them, three for two a little bit.”
Where ASU went wrong
Again, all this sounds similar to ASU, and UA beat the Sun Devils twice this year.
Oats said he watched both of those games live and studied the film.
ASU’s “shot selection at times on the offensive end was a little suspect,” he said. “They weren’t able to get the ball pressure right out of the gate. They picked it up, you know, they got down almost 20 … we’ve got to do what they did when they were good, and we’ve got to do it for 40.”
It’ll come down to turnovers, in part.
“If they’re scoring in transition, you’re completely screwed because they’re so good in the half court,” Oats said. “Our turnovers have to be super limited.”
Still, “if Trier and Rawle are hitting,” he said, “shoot, we had a great year.”
Cats need to pounce
The Wildcats need to jump on Buffalo and get their rotation guys some rest. They have the look of a team that could make a deep tournament run, but they won’t be able to do it if they’re exhausted.
The Bulls aren’t going to lay down, but their leading rebounder, CJ Massinburg, is 6-foot-3. Sometimes tough isn’t enough.
Then again, sometimes it is. This time of year, anything can happen.
“I’ve done this tournament, I don’t know, maybe 20 times, whatever it is,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who potentially represents UA’s second-round foe. “You can’t look ahead because a lot of times you look ahead and the team you’re worried about doesn’t even advance.”
That’s why UA can’t mess around. Get up early, and stay there.