After its first four victory against St. John’s, ASU basketball will face the Buffalo Bulls in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
All week long, Bobby Hurley was hoping to not let the cat out of the bag. His team had another game to take care of — St. John’s — before a reunion with his prior school was even possible.
But, by virtue of Arizona State’s 74-65 win over St. John’s in the First Four, the perceived cruelty of the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee came to life: the Sun Devils advanced to play Buffalo — where Hurley began his head coaching career — and his protege, current Bulls’ coach Nate Oats, in the first round of the tournament.
On Wednesday night, Hurley finally released his thoughts.
“I haven’t really had time to think about how I’m going to feel on Friday,” he said. “But Nate and I speak, and we both agreed that we’re really good friends, and we both helped each other tremendously in our careers.
“But that’s probably not going to matter a whole lot on Friday.”
After leading UB to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015, Hurley took the job in Tempe. Oats — a two-year assistant — assumed duties at Buffalo, bringing 11 years of experience from Romulus High School in Michigan, where he led the Eagles to a state title in 2013 and four semifinal appearances.
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In four seasons with the Bulls, Oats has matched Hurley’s success and then some. UB has won three MAC Tournament championships, back-to-back regular season titles and achieved a combined record of 95-42.
Last year, the Bulls took college basketball by storm when they upset Deandre Ayton and the No. 4 seed Arizona Wildcats, 89-68, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There, Oats’ confidence was on full display, affirming beliefs on UA’s reluctance to ball pressure and shooting 3-pointers (2-of-18 in that game).
That belief has commanded respect. One season later, Buffalo has become arguably the most reputable mid-major, increasing their win total from 27 to 31 and reaching an AP ranking as high as No. 14.
The Bulls are led by senior C.J. Massinburg, who was named MAC Player of the Year after averaging 18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and three assists. The 6-foot-3 guard can explode as a playmaker and a scorer, boasting a 43-point and a 10-assist effort in separate games this season.
Fellow seniors Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris also collected all-conference honors, as Perkins made the First Team and Harris was named to the Second Team. Each was instrumental to last year’s tournament upset against Arizona, combining for 36 points and 11 rebounds.
As a team, UB has a strong offensive reputation. The Bulls are the nation’s fifth-best scoring team at 84.9 points per game, average 17 assists and make nearly 10 three-pointers per game.
However, this is a unit that hangs its hat on the defensive end. Its consistent ball pressure (7.3 steals per game, 4.1 blocks PG) forces an average of 15 turnovers, which allows them to reach the free throw line over 20 times per contest.
Like ASU, the Bulls are also a premier rebounding squad. Boosted by the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Perkins, they pull down 38 per game and hold a +4.2 margin over opponents.
To execute against UB, the Sun Devils must take care of the ball and disrupt Buffalo’s offensive rhythm. ASU struggled with mixes of full-court pressure in its two recent games against Oregon and St. John’s, combining for 24 turnovers.
It did, however, perform well on the defensive end. The Sun Devils held the Ducks and Red Storm to 42 and 32 percent shooting, respectively, and an 18-of-57 clip from beyond the arc. Against the Bulls, ASU will once again need to use its length and be disruptive.
This game is an opportunity for the Sun Devils to advance in the NCAA Tournament. It’s also a direct chance for Hurley to affirm his coaching progress.
Both sides won’t acknowledge it, but this matchup will have personal feelings attached. It is the NCAA Tournament, after all.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.