The madness is almost upon us as we are just mere hours away from the beginning of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
As we ponder who will cut down the nets and who will be this year’s Cinderella, the 4th-seeded Arizona Wildcats prepare for a first-round meeting with the 13th-seeded Buffalo Bulls. The Wildcats, despite to wild rollercoaster of a season, have aspirations to be the ones cutting down the nets while Buffalo wants to be that Disney fairy tale that gets in the way.
Arizona comes into the tournament playing the best basketball we’ve seen from them this season. They’re winners of their last five with the last four coming by double-digits, all adding up to Pac-12 dominance — a regular season conference championship and a Pac-12 Tournament championship.
But Buffalo isn’t in the NCAA Tournament by accident. They handled the MAC all season with their fast-paced offense and athletic edge on their competition. They, too, won their regular season conference title and conference tournament with relative ease.
The Wildcats are the clear favorite entering Thursday night — they’re the better seed, they have more talent and they’ve become a national champion contender once again with many predicting them to make the Final Four in a brutal region.
But Arizona is also guilty of inconsistency, slow starts and defensive lapses. So what Wildcat team will show up in Boise on Thursday night? And how can they avoid a great offensive team pulling off a big upset? Here are three keys to a Wildcat win on Thursday night:
Take care of the ball
Arizona has dealt with turnover issues for the last several weeks in total and in reality, sloppy minutes have been an issue all season long.
This was evident in Arizona’s Pac-12 Tournament Final victory over the USC Trojans when the Wildcats gave the ball away 14 times — the sixth time in the last eight games that Arizona has turned it over at least 12 times.
Arizona’s offensive ugly side tends to rear its head when they’re forced to play a fast pace, something that Buffalo specializes in. The Bulls want to run, get tons of possessions and score a ton. This could be a recipe for the Wildcats being a turnover machine.
It might be a smart move for the bulk of the ball-handling to fall on the shoulders of Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier. In slower moving games, Rawle Alkins can be trusted but he has become the most turnover prone Wildcat over the course of the season, turning it over 2.6 times per game, most on the team.
It will also be big for Deandre Ayton to not catch the ball and hesitate. He needs to be quick to make his first move as he’s also been guilty of having the proverbial butterfingers throughout the season.
If Arizona can be mindful of holding onto the basketball, it will give Buffalo an extremely small margin for error.
Feed the monster
At this point it should be a no-brainer that Deandre Ayton should be getting the ball on offense at all costs.
After his back-to-back 32 point double-double performances to close out the Pac-12 Tournament, the best player in college basketball is playing at his best. Now, in his first NCAA Tournament game, he’s up against an opponent that has no answer for him.
Buffalo ranks 136th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, no player that gets more than 15 minutes per game stands taller than 6’8” and they’ve allowed more than 47 percent shooting on 2-pointers so far this season.
Even if the Bulls decide to go all-in on a double team for Ayton every time down, he possesses the passing ability out of the post to find shooters or his frontcourt mate, Dusan Ristic.
With such a size advantage and a team already not known for their defense, Ayton could get everything he wants on Thursday night.
In the Pac-12 Tournament, Arizona showed something they struggled to show throughout the regular season — the ability to put teams away with authority.
Arizona was engaged in closely contested battles in each of their tournament games, until at some point in the second half or even overtime, when they would take their game to another level and absolutely decimate the competition.
Wildcat fans need to hope that that sticks because it will be needed against Buffalo. The Bulls will come out firing, wanting to jump on Arizona quick with speed and shooting. Expect the first half to be a close game. The Wildcats have not been fast starters all season and that shouldn’t be expected to change in March.
That’s where the killer instinct will come up huge for Arizona. When they turn up the athleticism and the physicality in the second half, they can run away from a team that doesn’t have enough firepower. They’ll need that Mortal Kombat characteristic — know when it’s time and then finish ‘em.