John Clay

Buffalo is confident and cocky. Can Kentucky end the Cinderella story?

Kentucky sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (1) answers questions during media availability Friday at Taco Bell Arena in Boise. Kentucky will play Buffalo Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. The winner advances to Atlanta next week.
Kentucky sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (1) answers questions during media availability Friday at Taco Bell Arena in Boise. Kentucky will play Buffalo Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. The winner advances to Atlanta next week. aslitz@herald-leader.com

If every basketball tournament needs a Cinderella, then Buffalo found the glass slipper a perfect fit on Thursday night, bursting from the carriage to mug fake news Arizona, the first jaw-dropper in this year’s NCAA dance.

Buffalo is a cocky Cinderella with a chip on its shoulder, as it turns out, what with Bulls Coach Nate Oats saying Thursday night that he was tired of UK Coach John Calipari “whining” about playing freshmen.

“Who said that?” responded Calipari on Friday.

If Buffalo is Cinderella, what does that make Kentucky? After all, the Cats are next on the dance card for the MAC team with the Big Mo heading into Saturday’s round-of-32 South Region matchup. If the Bulls became America’s team by trouncing Sean Miller’s “under investigation” Wildcats, does that make Calipari’s Wildcats the evil stepmother?

Boise sure got behind the Bulls on Thursday. The more Buffalo extended its lead over ’Zona, the louder the crowd became inside Taco Bell Arena. Neutral fans turned into Bulls fans, rooting on the underdog in the 89-68 shocker.

Even in its normal role as tourney favorites, Kentucky isn’t used to such treatment. UK’s past high seedings have meant earning tournament sites closer to home where Big Blue Nation gobbled up tickets and controlled the decibels. Often neutral-site NCAA games sounded more like Kentucky home games.

Boise is an exception. To be sure, there was plenty of blue in the house for UK’s 78-73 win over Davidson on Thursday, but much of it was Gonzaga blue. It’s a considerable haul, after all, from the Blue Grass to this beautiful corner of Idaho.

Kentucky forward Kevin Knox talks about Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game against Buffalo.

So how will Kentucky’s rookie — “I don’t know if it’s whining or telling the truth,” said Calipari about his team’s youth — react if the crowd swings its support behind Buffalo, especially should the Bulls get off to a hot start?

“We’re played against adversity,” said UK guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Friday. “A lot of us like playing on the road and in a road environment, so that won’t be a problem for us.”

“We’ve got to be able to play with a chip on our shoulder because they’re playing with a chip on theirs,” said teammate Kevin Knox. “We’ve just got come out and play harder than the person in front of you.”

If Thursday night is any indication, Buffalo’s Cinderellas play hard, very hard. Oats uses a four-guard lineup that loves to get the ball up and down the floor. Buffalo is fifth nationally in average possession length, just 14.8 seconds on a 30-second shot clock.

Buffalo picked up crowd support in its upset win over Arizona on Thursday. What if the same thing happens Saturday against Kentucky?

Like Davidson, the Bulls love the three-pointer. They were 15-of-30 from beyond the arc while deep-sixing ’Zona. Unlike Davidson, the Bulls take many of their threes in transition. They will turn a 50-50 ball at one end into a quick triple at the other.

Still, by the end of the night the clock should strike 12 on the No. 13 seeds. The carriage becomes a pumpkin. Kentucky has more talent. And not to take anything away from Buffalo, but this tournament has exposed the Pac-12, the league Arizona won, as a total 2017-18 washout, stumbling out of the Big Dance at 0-3.

The Bulls won’t be cowed, though. They played Cincinnati (lost by six), South Dakota State, St. Bonaventure, Syracuse, Texas A&M and Arizona this year. All received NCAA tourney invites. Buffalo lost those games, but not its confidence.

“They remind me of my UMass teams,” Calipari said.

So maybe Oats is similar to a younger Calipari, who was known to do some talking back in the day.

Kentucky guard Quade Green on Saturday’s NCAA Tournament game against Buffalo.

“I’ve lived it,” Cal said Friday. “I had that kind of team. I had guys with chips on their shoulders. It’s fun to coach those guys. I always say when I had a whip I could talk. I would say stuff because I had a whip, I knew they’d back me up. They’d go play. It should be fun.”

Fun for Buffalo, the sudden giant killer now hunting the biggest college basketball giant of them all. And fun for Kentucky, which knows most people Saturday will be rooting for Cinderella to win again.

“We’re everybody’s Super Bowl,” said sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, repeating something he’s only heard a million times from his head coach.

“We like doubters,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “And proving them wrong.”

KENTUCKY VS. BUFFALO

When: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. EDT

Where: Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho

TV: CBS-27

Buffalo men’s basketball 2017-18

Date

Opponent

Buff

Opp

Dec

Rec

MAC

11/11

Canisus

80

75

W

1-0

11/15

Jacksonville St

81

76

W

2-0

11/20

vsCincinnati

67

73

L

2-1

11/21

vsUAB

96

91

W*

3-1

11/22

vsSouth Dakota St

80

94

L

3-2

11/29

@Niagara

106

87

W

4-2

12/2

St. Bonaventure

62

73

L

4-3

12/6

@Delaware

75

72

W

5-3

12/9

Central Pennsylvania

88

54

W

6-3

12/16

Robert Morris

86

70

W

7-3

12/19

@Syracuse

74

81

L

7-4

12/21

@Texas A&M

73

89

L

7-5

12/28

NJIT

86

81

W*

8-5

1/2

Toledo

104

94

W

9-5

1-0

1/6

@Ball State

83

63

W

10-5

2-0

1/9

@Akron

87

65

W

11-5

3-0

1/13

Miami (O)

82

66

W

12-5

4-0

1/16

Northern Illinois

95

67

W

13-5

5-0

1/19

@Western Michigan

84

74

W

14-5

6-0

1/23

Eastern Michigan

83

69

W

15-5

7-0

1/26

@Ohio

73

66

W

16-5

8-0

1/30

@Kent State

79

82

L

16-6

8-1

2/2

Western Michigan

92

86

W

17-6

9-1

2/6

@Central Michigan

88

82

W

18-6

10-1

2/10

@Northern Illinois

88

90

L*

18-7

10-2

2/13

Kent State

84

72

W

19-7

11-2

2/16

Bowling Green

95

82

W

20-7

12-2

2/20

@Miami (O)

81

84

L

20-8

12-3

2/24

Ohio

108

82

W

21-8

13-3

2/27

Akron

80

68

W

22-8

14-3

3/2

@Bowling Green

100

70

W

23-8

15-3

3/8

vsCentral Michigan

89

84

W

24-8

3/9

vsKent State

78

61

W

25-8

3/10

vsToledo

76

66

W

26-8

3/15

vsArizona

89

68

W

27-8

3/17

vsKentucky

* overtime game

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