The Cinderella Bulls look to keep March MACtion rolling
The first and biggest shock of the 2018 NCAA Tournament came in South Region play Thursday at Boise's Taco Bell Arena. Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo sank 15 3-pointers and used a tenacious, trapping defense to stun Arizona. The Bulls dance on for the first time in program history, advancing against one of the most successful programs of the past 30 years to meet one of the sport's all-time blue bloods.
Kentucky weathered a second-half storm in its First Round matchup with Davidson to hold on and reach the Second Round. The Wildcats face another upset-minded opponent in the Round of 32, albeit one with a very different M.O.
South Region: No. 13 Buffalo Bulls (27-8) vs. No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats (25-10)
Time: 5:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Taco Bell Arena (Boise, Idaho)
Keys for Buffalo
Mid-American Conference football earned the nickname "MACtion," in reference to its many potent, exciting offenses. Nate Oats oversees a hardwood version of MACtion, ranked No. 36 nationally in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com. The Bulls were really running in their opener vs. Arizona, connecting on an incredible 15-of-30 3-point attempts.
While another 50 percent effort is unlikely — especially against a Kentucky defense that ranks No. 4 nationally defending the 3-pointer — if the Bulls can hit slightly more than their already impressive 37.6 season-long average, they'll be well-positioned to score another upset. Wes Clark and C.J. Massinburg knocking down a few early 3-pointers, like they did against Arizona, should draw out Kentucky's defense.
The Wildcats are less effective defending inside the arc, so pulling away their rim protectors with some deep balls early into the contest could lead to a bonanza for the Bulls guard. Buffalo flourished against Arizona with dribble-drive penetration, and the Bulls have an opportunity to recreate that success. Likewise, Kentucky's turnover vulnerability — UK ranks No. 177 nationally in turnover percentage — can turn into fast-break points for UB.
Keys for Kentucky
Kentucky's outstanding defense against the 3-pointer throughout the 2017-18 season is a key difference between these Wildcats, and those that Buffalo faced on Thursday. Opponents hit on just 30 percent of attempts from deep against Kentucky during the season. When the Wildcats limited Davidson, they gained some breathing room on the scoreboard.
Kentucky also has a tremendous size advantage over Buffalo — not necessarily in the post, but more with length around the perimeter. Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander give the Wildcats a rangy look that could fluster and frustrate Buffalo's smaller backcourt.
Then, establishing Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington on the interior will force Buffalo to collapse with its guards, leading to cleaner looks against the Bulls' extended zone.
After Buffalo outplayed a talented Arizona bunch, it's easy to see the MAC champions giving another power program that struggled with consistency this season fits. However, Kentucky's response in the second half vs. Davidson, as well as the run through the SEC Tournament, showed the Wildcats as the most locked-in they have been all season. John Calipari's bunch is playing its best at the right time.
Buffalo should be competitive, but Kentucky has too much length and too many weapons to allow the Cinderella story to continue.
Prediction: Kentucky 82, Buffalo 76
(Top photo courtesy of UBBulls.com)