Someone taped a white sheet of paper on the wall closest to the door leading out of Buffalo’s locker room here. The message written on the paper was the last thing the players saw as they left for the court.
The message: Ball Pressure. To emphasize its importance, someone drew three straight lines underneath the words.
For Kentucky’s opponent in Saturday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament, the message is the mantra.
“We try to disrupt people,” Buffalo guard Wes Clark said.
That worked in Thursday night’s 89-68 victory over Arizona, a team like UK with players who aspire to play in the NBA and a reason to believe a long run in the NCAA Tournament is possible.
“That’s NBA prospects,” Clark said of Arizona’s players. “We thought the best way for us to have a chance was to interrupt what they’ve got going on. So that was the No. 1 game plan.”
For Saturday, this puts the onus squarely on Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A first-round victory over Davidson showed again that he is UK’s main man. In the final 69 seconds, he made six of six free throws, grabbed two rebounds, made a steal and directed the Cats to the finish line.
It’s that kind of productive play under duress by Gilgeous-Alexander that Buffalo wants to disrupt.
If this unnerves Gilgeous-Alexander, he hid it well Friday.
“It won’t be too difficult,” he said in a tone suggesting indifference. “I’ve played against teams that really pressure the ball and really get after me. . . . I’ve seen a lot of defenses in my life, including this season. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve matured a lot. I don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem tomorrow.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, a relatively unheralded prospect (by UK standards of recruiting hype), is the undisputed leader and key to the team. After losses at South Carolina and Florida in the regular season, UK Coach John Calipari put it plainly: How Gilgeous-Alexander goes, so goes Kentucky.
If numbers help, Gilgeous-Alexander has a pedestrian assist-to-turnover ratio of 47-39 in UK’s 10 losses. In the 25 victories, his assist-to-turnover ratio approaches 3-to-1 (131 assists, 53 turnovers).
“He’s really the core of our team,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “He is what makes us go. He’s been so consistent, really all year. We’ve been able to lean on him, and he’s really been that guy we look to. He’s really been the engine to our team.”
A reporter asked Gilgeous-Alexander if his Canadian roots (he’s a native of Hamilton, Ontario) played a part in the lack of kudos early this season. He demurred. “I wasn’t that good when I first came across the border,” he said.
Calipari pointed out how Gilgeous-Alexander evolved into arguably the team’s most indispensable player.
“He’s come on for that,” Calipari said. “And you have to earn that.”
Calipari then recalled how after Kentucky won the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Commissioner Greg Sankey asked to present the championship trophy to the team captains.
“I never named captains,” Calipari said. “I didn’t know who the captains were.”
The UK coach does now.
“He is now becoming that guy,” Calipari said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “Because of how he works, how he performs, how he finishes games. Players are now looking to him. It’s the best way to have captains kind of evolve versus I’m naming you a captain.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s evolution began as a penetrator first, last and always. As defenses adjusted, he countered by becoming better at penetrating and pitching.
Maybe most striking is his ability to become almost liquefied as he drives to the basket and somehow finds a crease to get off a shot or pass.
“He’s just crafty,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “It’s hard to stay in front of him. Even when you think you have him guarded, he still gets to the lane and finishes. He’s a pretty good shooter as well. So you have to respect that. . . . He’s a really hard cover.”
As the sign in the Buffalo locker room suggested, the Bulls will be committed to pressuring. A 27-8 won-loss record suggests the strategy works. It did against Arizona. As Clark said of Arizona’s Wildcats, “We just tried to take those guys off their rhythm.”
Buffalo’s guards made an impression on Arizona’s much-ballyhooed freshman big man, Deandre Ayton.
“From the jump, those guys were on us . . . ,” he said. “Their guard play on the defensive end is crazy. They attack you all the way.”
That includes on the offensive end, too.
“It’s like they’re going down hill when they come off ball screens,” Ayton said. “You know, they’re 100 percent.”
Kentucky expects a test of effort and passion.
“Nobody’s going away,” Hamidou Diallo said. “Let’s see. May the best team win.”
Kentucky vs. Buffalo
What: NCAA Tournament South Region round-of-32 game
When: 5:15 p.m. EDT
Where: Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: No. 5 seed Kentucky 25-10, No. 13 seed Buffalo 27-8
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-52 on Nov. 16, 2014, in Lexington.