UB Bulls prepare for reigning national champion Duke

Buffalo faces Blue Devil on Saturday


Head coach Nate Oats will never take the easy way out for his basketball team.

Even as a high school coach at Romulus, he sought out the toughest competition to ready his players for the brunt of the season.

And the competition cannot get any tougher for the men’s basketball team than what it will face this upcoming week: reigning national champion Duke.

“The only way to get better is to play good competition,” Oats said. “I’m not one of those guys to play four non-Division I games to get to 20 wins. I don’t care about that. When we go into Duke, we’ll play well, we’ll play hard, we’ll learn how to compete. We’ll get better … Those games make you better in March.”

After a tough loss to Big 4 rival St. Bonaventure Wednesday night, the Bulls (4-3) faceoff against two of the top-10 teams in the nation in No. 7 Duke (7-1) on Saturday and No. 5 Iowa State (6-0) on Monday. Buffalo will first travel to Durham, North Carolina to face the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium, considered the mecca of college basketball.

It’s tough to assume Buffalo will grab a victory over the defending champion Blue Devils. But Oats just wants to see a well-played, fundamental basketball game.

And he thinks he has the pieces in place for a competitive game.

“I think we’ve got some guys that can play better than they’ve been playing,” Oats said. “I think we’ve got some athletes … that can play in a game with those guys.”

But Buffalo may still have work to do.

In its loss to St. Bonaventure (3-2), Buffalo shot just 19-of-32 from the free throw line and just 1-of-13 from deep for just 58 points – tied for its lowest scoring output of the season. Oats noted that the combination of freshman forwards Ikenna Smart and Nick Perkins need to improve around the rim offensively and defensively.

That may pose a big problem against a team like Duke. The Blue Devils are one of the premier teams in the country on both offense and defense. Duke ranks 36th in the country in offensive boards (14.38/game) and are tied for 26th in the country with 311 total rebounds through eight games played.

On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils are 23rd in the nation with 86.5 points per game, led by an array of talented guards and dominating forwards. Duke guard Grayson Allen is one of the top players in the nation with 21.8 points per game. Allen, a sophomore, first broke onto the national scene with a scintillating performance during Duke’s 2015 NCAA Tournament run.

But Buffalo has a talented sophomore guard of its own. Lamonte Bearden’s all-around game has improved this season, as he’s averaged 13.6 points and 2.7 assists per game. Bearden said the team will try to play loose in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“We’re going to go in, try and play normally,” Bearden said. “We’re the underdogs, so we have nothing to lose. We’re going to go in there fighting to the best of our abilities.”

But even if Buffalo leaves North Carolina with a loss, it would still be considered a win in Oats’ mind. He prepares his teams for conference play and beyond, not early in the season.

“It’s one of the best places in America as far as college basketball environment goes,” Oats said. “I think it’s big our guys get to go in there and experience it.”

This wouldn’t be the Bulls’ first time playing two national contenders in the same season. Last year, Buffalo played both Kentucky and Wisconsin and held first half leads over both before eventually losing.

Both of those teams met in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament season last season.

Buffalo may be more prepared to play in a big basketball venue this season compared to last, after playing at Kentucky and Wisconsin and in front of a packed out Nationwide Arena in the NCAA Tournament last march.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Bearden said. “I don’t know how many students, but just as much as Kentucky or maybe even more. But it’s going to be real great for us – a good challenge, a good test.”

Tipoff against Duke is set for 5:15 p.m. and will air nationally on ESPN2.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.