Even the casual sports fan could tell by halftime of the University of Arizona vs. Buffalo men’s basketball game Thursday night that the Wildcats were in trouble. Arizona was down by just two points at the half in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but there were real concerns on that side of the court that soon grew to overwhelming proportions as the second half progressed.
The final: Arizona 68, Buffalo 89.
It was hard to put a finger on the exact problem in that game. But it was obvious by midway through the second half that the No. 4-seeded Wildcats were about to be upset by No. 13 Buffalo, a MAC program looking for its first NCAA Tournament win.
And after the game, no one had figured it out. Not the coaches, not the broadcast analysts that were working the game. And most of all, not the fans who rightly were expecting to cheer their team on to its first Final Four appearance during the nine years that Sean Miller has directed the Pac-12 program.
Miller’s assessment after the game was simple and to the point: “They overwhelmed us in the second half, on offense and defense.”
The Cats had two 7-footers on the floor, a senior point guard, and one of the top coaches in the country. One of those bigs was a senior and the other a freshman, Deandre Ayton, who was the No. 1 high school recruit when Miller convinced him he could help lead the team to perhaps a national title this year. Now Ayton will move on from college and likely be one of the top three picks in the next NBA draft.
Dusan Ristic was the other 7-footer, and wound up being the team’s leading scorer on the night. The senior put up 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting from the floor. And Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who started every game at the point for Arizona this season, is also done with his college tour after scoring seven points in his career finale.
Arizona entered the season ranked by several sites as the No. 1 team in the county, hit a rough patch early, but rebounded back up to No. 15. It won both the conference regular season and the Pac-12 Tournament – the second year in a row for both accomplishments.
But something happened when Arizona landed in Boise, Idaho, to begin its climb through the South region. The team that took the floor Thursday night didn’t resemble the team that had won eight of its previous nine games and rolled through the Pac-12 Tournament, beating all three opponents by double digits and finishing it off with a 14-point romp over USC in the tourney championship game.
Ayton poured in 32 points in the final game, and 32 points the one before that against UCLA. But against Buffalo, he scored just 14 points, but added 13 rebounds to help offset his medicore offensive performance.
Everyone knew Ayton would be a one-and-done this year. But how many expected this team to be a one-and-done in the tourney?
Answer: Very few. With Ayton on the floor, expectations among Arizona fans, as well as many analysts in the media, was at least a Final Four appearance.
But Buffalo wasn’t impressed – nor intimidated – by the media hype surrounding the Wildcats. Going into the locker room at halftime, the Bulls’ head coach, Nate Oats, told a sideline reporter that his team came into the game expecting to win and was disappointed they weren’t ahead by more after the first 20 minutes. That confidence obviously rubbed off onto his players, who never took their foot off the gas and came at Arizona like a team on a sacred mission.
Oats was given a five-year contract extension just 10 days ago. Now, that’s looking like a stroke of genius by the administration.
What Oats did against Arizona was also pretty smart — and pretty simple, too. The battle plan was to play the Bulls’ usual style of intense defense, but put lots of pressure on the guards and keep them away from the basket, forcing mostly shots from the perimeter — and contest those that were attempted.
That worked to perfection as the Wildcats took 20 shots from behind the arc, but converted just two of them into points. One reason there was so much reliance on the outside shot was the Cats’ inability to get the ball to Ayton inside. He was double-teamed all night.
And it also appeared Arizona wasn’t prepared for the kind of quickness the Buffalo guards brought to the game. The trio of upperclassmen in the backcourt seemed to have little trouble driving the lane for easy layups and, when they couldn’t get to the hole, they were able to kick the ball out to wide-open shooters on the perimeter.
Senior guard Wes Clark led the way for Buffalo with 25 points and juniors Jeremy Harris and CJ Massinburg had 25 and 23 respectively.
But even beyond the stats that showed Buffalo’s domination in so many areas, this just wasn’t the same bunch of all-stars that started the season as the top-ranked team in the country, or even the one that won the Pac-12. This was a team that had been through a season of trauma, constantly on a roller coaster ride that wore down the emotions.
Assistant coach Book Richardson was indicted in the off-season as part of an FBI probe into college recruiting corruption; the team fell from the list of ranked teams shortly into the season when they lost three straight games at the Battle4Atlantis tournament; Allonzo Trier, the team’s second-leading scorer behind Ayton, was suspended for a couple of games down the stretch of the regular season; and Miller himself was implicated in the recruiting scandal in an ESPN article as the season was closing.
It didn’t help that the Cats had to travel to Boise instead of getting placed in a region closer to home, where they would have better fan support.
There’s little doubt that Buffalo’s game plan had a lot to do with this devastating loss. But it’s also pretty certain the Bulls got some help from a team that had lost its focus — and maybe even some of its desire.
That combination was just too much for Arizona to overcome.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)