Arizona came in as a 4-seed that some thought was underseeded. They didn’t represent that idea well on Thursday night, getting thumped by the 13-seed Buffalo Bulls, 89-68.
It was a full-on sprint in the first half that saw the Bulls draining shots left and right. Arizona stayed in it by causing nine first half turnovers. Still, with their superb shot-making, the Bulls led the Wildcats 40-38 at the break.
Arizona trailed at the half of both the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal and final games. On both occasions, the Wildcats stormed out of the half and lit their opponent up for double-digit wins. It was natural to think that Arizona’s second half intensity would carry over into the NCAA Tournament.
But then something different happened. Buffalo was still making shots, much like the first half. And the Wildcats completely vanished. It was a disappearing act you’d normally only see from world-class magicians. One second, they were there – the next second, they were gone.
I suppose that’s a metaphor for their 2018 NCAA Tournament run.
All season long, we’ve recapped three positive and three negative takeaways from each game. It’s never been so difficult to find ups from these 2017-18 Arizona Wildcats. Even during the losses and tough times throughout the season, there’s been a light at the end of the tunnel, a silver lining. This one had nothing – Buffalo outpaced, outhustled and overwhelmed Arizona from the get-go.
So, for this one, our last of the season, we’ll just go through what went wrong in Arizona’s crushing, first-round defeat.
Having two 7-footers and an athletic group of guards and wings was expected to be a major advantage for Arizona against an undersized Buffalo team.
That was far from the truth.
Buffalo was all over the glass and despite a late surge on the offensive glass, the Bulls won the rebounding war, 32-31.
The Bulls boxed Arizona out at every turn, tipped the ball out to the perimeter and hustled for every loose ball. Actually, while we’re at it…
Buffalo made every extra play. It could be said that the Bulls won most 50/50 balls but they did more than that. Buffalo turned every 50/50 ball into a 90/10 ball. They moved with urgency and conviction while Arizona waited for the ball to bounce their way.
It’s among the oldest clichés in all of sports – whoever wants it more gets the win.
Buffalo wanted it much more. This is not to question the will to win of a pair of seniors desperate for a long tournament run, a junior who returned to make up for last year’s tournament failure or a freshman intent on impressing scouts. But the Bulls clearly wanted this more than Arizona. The Wildcats seemed like a team that was listening to “experts” call them a championship contender for the last five days, expecting their mid-major opponent to just step aside and be happy for being there.
That’s clearly not Buffalo’s style. They handed Arizona nothing. Instead, they took everything.
What this all boils down to is toughness. That’s why Buffalo took everything away from Arizona on Thursday night. They played tougher than Arizona in every facet but especially in the backcourt.
Bulls guards Wes Clark and Jeremy Harris did everything they wanted on offense, blowing by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton every chance they got. Davonta Jordan made PJC’s life a living hell with his defense.
Buffalo tested Arizona and the Wildcats failed miserably.
The Bulls consistently stayed in front of Arizona’s offense while running circles around them at the other end. After driving by Arizona over and over again, Buffalo’s offense opened up even more. The Wildcats tried playing up on the Bulls, Buffalo’s response was quick drives followed by an unexpected stepback and a feathery jumper that never seemed to miss.
Speaking of never seeming to miss, the Bulls hit 15 3-pointers in their first round victory. And frankly, Arizona didn’t do much to stop it.
Guys repeatedly got lost on defense and it’s not like Buffalo’s ball movement was spectacular. Guys were pulling up from long range, launching stepback 3s and catching handoffs beyond the arc to jack up a trey. Buffalo knocked down 15-of-30 and many of those were wide open looks.
Arizona had recently done a good job of stepping up their defensive intensity. That was non-existent on Thursday night as they lazily threw their arms up to contest 3-pointers and got turned around on nearly all of Buffalo’s drives to the basket which led to 13 layups for the Bulls.
You can point to any of these things as the ultimate death knell for Arizona on Thursday night. But when the Wildcats settle for 3-pointers – and miss them – there is not much chance of recovering for Arizona.
Arizona took 18 3-pointers in this first round game. Buffalo took 30. And yet, somehow, Arizona managed to miss more than the Bulls, shooting just 2-for-18 from deep.
Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins didn’t drive the ball near as much as they should have thanks to a defense that swarmed the ball with relentless aggression.
Even so, when the jumpers aren’t falling and they most certainly weren’t in this one, the Wildcats needed to get to the rim and force their way to the free throw line. It’s a key part of the Wildcat offense, especially from Trier.
Instead, the Wildcats took only 11 free throw attempts, making eight. Trier was a perfect 2-for-2.
The Wildcats settled for everything in this one, just playing the waiting game, patiently expecting the Bulls to eventually relent so they can go on one of their patented runs and put the 13-seed away.
But Arizona was the one put away. Not with a fight, not with a blaze of glory, but instead with a whimper.