Can Buffalo take the next step forward and solidify an identity as an emerging basketball power? That's the question facing the Bulls as they take on Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Arizona State enters the game with major momentum after crushing St. John's 74-65 in the First Four on Wednesday. The Sun Devils held the Red Storm to 25 first-half points on 30 percent shooting and led by double digits for most of the game.
Buffalo is no stranger to facing Pac-12 teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls obliterated Pac-12 champion Arizona in the first round a year ago as a No. 13 seed. This time around, everything is a bit different. Buffalo has taken on the role of the hunted instead of the hunter. The Bulls eclipsed 30 wins and rose to No. 15 in the final AP Top 25 Poll.
Adding an interesting wrinkle to the mix is that former Bulls head coach Bobby Hurley will be facing his old school for the first time. Hurley led Buffalo to the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015 before departing for Arizona State. He has sparked a renaissance in Tempe, leading the Sun Devils to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 1981.
West Region: No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils (23-10) vs. No. 6 Buffalo Bulls (31-3)
Time: 4 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Bank of Oklahoma Center (Tulsa, Okla.)
Keys for Arizona State
One thing the Sun Devils will learn quickly is that Buffalo likes to sprint up and down the floor and toss up a flurry of 3-pointers. The Bulls score 84.9 points per game, which is tied for fifth among NCAA Division I teams. Arizona State needs to slow the pace and force Buffalo to defend late into the shot clock. Fewer possessions for the Bulls could cause a team who hasn't experienced many close games to tighten up as the game progresses.
The Sun Devils need to take care of the ball. Arizona State got great performances from Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham. Dort overcame a leg injury to score 21 points while Cheatham tallied 14 points and 10 rebounds. Their efforts were nearly undone by 20 turnovers that let St. John's back into the game down the stretch. Buffalo is a team that is good at forcing turnovers. If the Sun Devils get sloppy on Friday, they may not be able to recover from it.
Keys for Buffalo
The Bulls can always count on CJ Massinburg to deliver big baskets at critical times. Buffalo needs to make sure Massinburg isn't doing it alone. Getting past Arizona State will require a balanced effort across the board. You can bet the Sun Devils will zero in on Massinburg, who averages 18.3 points on 46.6 percent shooting per game. Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris need to step up and divert some of the defensive focus away from the Bulls' star guard.
Crashing the boards will be important for Buffalo. Arizona State has a knack for pulling down rebounds at a much more proficient rate than its opponents. The Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding (12.2 per game) and ranked second in total rebounding (40.0) coming into the NCAA Tournament. St. John's gave itself a chance to rally by dominating on offensive rebounds, but could not turn those boards into enough second-chance points. If the Bulls can keep Arizona State off the glass, they will be able to keep the Sun Devils from controlling the pace easier.
Skeptics are making Arizona State a trendy upset pick over Buffalo in their brackets. It would be a mistake to dismiss head coach Nate Oats and his team. The Bulls proved themselves in March a year ago. While Arizona State has plenty of big wins to its credit, the Sun Devils were also highly inconsistent during the regular season. The Bulls will find a way to put their stamp on the game and get another crack at reaching the second weekend of the tournament for the first time.
Prediction: Buffalo 85, Arizona State 78
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.