BOISE — The Buffalo Bulls have been public enemy No. 1 all season.
They were selected to finish first in the MAC, a conference they have dominated three of the last four years, and there were even talks that they could run the table in conference play.
So every conference foe wanted a piece of them.
“Ever since we started, there’s been pressure on (us),” said Buffalo coach Nate Oats. “It was a disappointment if we weren’t winning by double digits.”
Which is why Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener against fourth-seeded Arizona is a breath of fresh air for the 13th-seeded Bulls.
The Wildcats are favored by 8.5 points in Boise.
“We’re used to being the guys with the targets on our back,” said UB guard Wes Clark. “So for us to go out and hunt one time is fun.”
“It might be the first game in 20-plus games where we weren’t supposed to be the winner,” Oats said. “It might be nice coming in as the underdog and play with a little bit more freedom, so to speak.”
More freedom for its high-octane offense? That could be exactly what Buffalo needs to pull off the upset.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t even call it an upset,” said confident Buffalo big man Nick Perkins. “We’re supposed to be here. We were winning all year, winning at a high level. We’re supposed to be here. It didn’t surprise us. We’re supposed to be in this game. I think it would be great for us if we win.”
Oats believes his team has a realistic chance of beating Arizona. Buffalo averages just south of 85 points per game, and figures it can win if it turns the game into a track meet and make a high percentage of its 3s.
“We’re going to have to make some shots,” Oats said. “Their depth is not quite as good as ours. And we’re fifth in the country in possession length on offense. So it’s not like we’ve got to do something we don’t do. We’re going to speed them up. We’ve been speeding people up all year.”
Doing that could neutralize Arizona’s overwhelming size advantage. But Oats acknowledged that Buffalo has not faced a player like Deandre Ayton this season — who has? — and isn’t sure how to slow him down.
“That is a million dollar question,” he said. “Everybody in the Pac-12 hasn’t figured it out. So I’ve got a few friends that coach there, I’ve talked to them. He’s definitely the No. 1 pick in the draft from what everybody is saying. You can see it when you watch film. He’s 7-1, 260 and moves like a guard.
“It’s not going to be that easy. I think you have to limit his touches as much as possible. When he does get it you can’t play one-on-one. There’s some pretty good bigs in our league, but we’ve just told our guys, If he gets it, you’re going to just have to guard him. That’s not going to work with him. You’re going to have to double, and pick your poison on who and where you double on. You’ve got to play hard.”
Oats also called Arizona guards Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier “pros”, and said Dusan Ristic “might be a pro.”
“I told our guys, it gets to this time of year, you ain’t getting an easy team,” Oats said. “You’re going to play a team with some players. We’re going to have to figure it out. We’re going to play a little bit harder than them and figure it out. We’ve got option A, B, C, and D, and we’ll see what’s working the best.”
Unlike many mid-majors, Buffalo is tournament-tested. The Bulls have now made the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years.
But the last two times they were ousted in the first round.
So, sure, the Bulls are the underdogs Thursday and not many people outside upstate New York believe they can win.
But they do — and need to in order to take a step forward as a program.
“It’s time to start getting some wins,” Oats said. “We’ve been here, done that, got the participation trophy. There’s still some pressure to come in here and not just play well, (but win) because we played well the last two times. It was one or two possessions in the last minute both times we were here. At least I feel a little bit of pressure that we need to get a win. I don’t think it’s bad to have a little bit of pressure.
“But it’s a different kind of pressure than it’s been for the last 20-some-odd games.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire