David vs. Goliath: Buffalo takes on much larger Arizona and Deandre Ayton

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The Bulls have a date with the No. 4 seed Arizona Wildcats and ESPN’s No. 3 ranked prospect in the upcoming NBA draft, Deandre Ayton.

The Bulls will have their hands full with the Wildcats, who are loaded with future NBA players. Ayton is joined by three other Wildcats on ESPN’s top-50 prospect list and has a second seven-footer in the starting lineup.

The two teams will meet Thursday in Boise, Idaho for the first round of the NCAA Tournament with tipoff scheduled for 9:40 p.m. The Bulls (26-8, 15-3 Mid-American Conference) are heading into their third NCAA Tournament in four years and will be trying to exploit the mismatch to get their first tournament win in program history. Arizona (27-7, 14-4 Pac-12) is a team that centers around the size of Ayton, a freshman forward, and senior center Dusan Ristic, who both are over seven feet tall. The Bulls play four guards and will try to use their speed and shooting to counter the Wildcats’ size.

“They’re big. They’ve got two seven-footers,” said Bulls head coach Nate Oats. “We’re going to have a problem guarding their size on the one end, and they’re going to have a problem guarding our athleticism and the floor being spread on the other end.”

Junior guard CJ Massinburg described the size difference as a “mismatch all day.” The biggest mismatch will come at the power-forward spot. One of the Wildcats’ seven-footers will have to come outside against junior guard Jeremy Harris who has been starting at the four for the Bulls all year.

Harris will have to figure out how to defend a seven-footer. Harris is 6-foot-7 and will be playing undersized at the four. But he shoots 43 percent from deep and will help stretch an Arizona defense that likes to clog the paint.

Buffalo will also look to use its depth to its advantage against the Wildcats. The Wildcats have four of five starters playing over 30 minutes per game. The Bulls only have two players with over 30 minutes per game: Harris and Massinburg.

“We don’t feel like they have as much depth as we do,” Massinburg said. “They play five guys heavy, so we’re going to come out and try to use our depth against them.”

Massinburg said Buffalo isn’t worried about the media attention Ayton and the rest of the team get. He said the extra media is a disadvantage for the Wildcats. No one is expecting the Bulls to win so they can just go into the game and play basketball.

“We’re going to go in there feeling like we have nothing to lose,” Massinburg said. “They’re the ones who have all the pressure on them because they’re expected to win. … We don't have any pressure on us, so we’re gonna go in there and try and play our best basketball and hopefully pull out a win.”

The community support has been building all season as Buffalo had a great turnout at the MAC Tournament in Cleveland. Oats said he even received a phone call from Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott on Monday morning.

“Sean McDermott called. He’s a great guy from everybody I know that knew him,” Oats said. “He told me to tell the team the Bills are pulling for them.”

Oats said getting to the tournament can have a snowball effect on the program. He said a win Thursday would go a long way in growing more community support.

Their two previous tournament appearances have already begun to help the program, according to Oats. He said it makes it a lot easier to recruit players when you are consistently playing in big games like the NCAA Tournament.

“We played highly ranked teams in the past and did well with them,” Oats said. “I think it gives us a national name and helps with recruiting, and you get better players. You keep inching your way up to where you’re able to ‘crack the stone’ so to speak and get one of these wins.”

Oats said the experience of his veterans in these big games will be valuable for the Bulls if they want to “crack the stone.” Massinburg and junior forward Nick Perkins were both on the team during the Bulls’ last tournament appearance. Both scored in double-digits against the top-15 ranked Miami Hurricanes. Perkins had a team-high 20 points in the contest.

Massinburg said this is a chance to prove to the nation that this team is the real deal.

“They’re going to learn how tough we are, how we’re fierce competitors, how we’re not going to back down from anyone,” Massinburg said. “We don’t care what’s on the front of your jersey. You put your shoes on just the same way we do. We’re gonna come out and compete.”

Daniel Petruccelli is the sports editor and can be reached at daniel.petruccelli@ubspectrum.com and @DanP_Spectrum.