Mark Story

Is it possible Buffalo’s strengths play into UK’s wheelhouse?

Buffalo guard Dontay Caruthers (22) celebrates on the bench after Buffalo upset Arizona 89-68 in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho.
Buffalo guard Dontay Caruthers (22) celebrates on the bench after Buffalo upset Arizona 89-68 in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. AP

It would be hard to overstate how impressive Buffalo was while smoking Arizona on Thursday night.

The Mid-American Conference champions, peeved because they felt under-seeded at No. 13, scrapped like their scholarship money depended on getting every loose ball.

Long before the Bulls put the finishing touches on a shocking 89-68 upset of Sean Miller’s No. 4-seeded Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region, Buffalo had taken Arizona’s will to fight.

“They remind me of my UMass teams,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari on Friday, comparing the Nate Oats-coached Bulls to the 1990s-era Massachusetts squads with which Cal built his coaching reputation. “Hard-nosed, tough, swagger, chip on their shoulder.”

When No. 5-seeded Kentucky (25-10) faces Buffalo (27-8) in the round of 32 Saturday at 5:15 p.m. (EDT) in Taco Bell Arena on the campus of Boise State University, it is possible UK is running into a March Madness buzzsaw.

Yet Buffalo’s date with destiny and chance to become only the seventh No. 13 seed to advance to the round of 16 since the NCAA Tournament expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985, might find an obstacle Saturday.

It could be that the Bulls’ strengths actually play into UK’s wheelhouse.

buffalo
The Buffalo bench reacts during the first half of a first-round game against Arizona in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. Buffalo won 89-68. Ted S. Warren AP

First, Buffalo is heavily reliant on three-point shooting.

In the blitzkrieg that overran Arizona, the Bulls sank 15 of 30 treys.

On the season, Buffalo has made the 12th-most three-point shots (344) in men’s NCAA Division I college basketball.

Buffalo’s average of 9.8 made treys a contest is 26th in the country. The Bulls’ conversion percentage, 37.5 percent (344-of-917), is 61st.

It’s hard to imagine Buffalo beating Kentucky without making a high percentage of treys.

UK’s defensive strength in 2017-18 has been contesting three-point shots.

Kentucky currently stands fourth in the nation in three-point field goal defense, allowing foes to convert 30 percent (271 of 902).

With Buffalo starting four guards, UK’s combination of defensive length and athleticism would seem to be a challenge for the Bulls’ shooters.

“Our length, hopefully, can affect their jump shots because they are really small,” Kentucky forward Kevin Knox said.

In UK’s 78-73 victory over Davidson, another three-point-reliant foe, it seemed to take the Atlantic 10 Tournament champions one half to adjust to Kentucky’s length.

Davidson made only three of 15 treys in half one. After intermission, Davidson found its footing and hit eight of 18 three-point attempts.

However, 11 of 33 treys overall was not good enough to take down Kentucky.

“We just played a team that shot a lot of threes and we won the game,” Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think we’ll be fine (defending the trey).”

Second, the Bulls prefer a frenetic pace.

Averaging 84.9 points per game, Buffalo is the nation’s sixth-highest scoring team. The Bulls have gone over 80 points 26 times this season. Villanova is the only team in the country to match that.

Buffalo’s relentless pace wilted Arizona.

Yet a blazing pace would seem to be to Kentucky’s advantage.

Of UK’s four best games in 2017-18, three of them have come against opponents who played at a red-hot speed and scrambled the court.

In December, Virginia Tech came to Rupp Arena and ran with Kentucky.

UK won 93-86.

On Jan. 27, the Cats traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., to face Bob Huggins and “Press Virginia.”

UK won 83-76.

Kentucky visited Arkansas, famed for its “40 minutes of hell,” on Feb. 20.

UK won 87-72.

Even the fourth win I’d put on UK’s most-impressive list — its 77-72 victory over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament championship game — was played at a fairly quick pace.

“I feel like a lot of times when we play in fast-tempo games, it helps us play more free,” Kentucky sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “It kind of plays to our advantages using our length and getting to the rim.”

Said Gilgeous-Alexander: “I feel like we’re better when we play faster. We have more struggles when we play a slower team like (Davidson). I do think (Buffalo’s) playing style will play into our favor a little bit.”

Bottom line: If Buffalo is going to become the national darling of March by adding Kentucky to its ouster of Arizona, the Bulls will all but certainly have to do it by beating UK at its own game.

As a general rule, that’s not usually that easy to do.

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