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What Arizona State will prepare for in facing familiar Buffalo team

Buffalo's CJ Massinburg, right, pulls on Jeremy Harris's cap after Buffalo defeated Bowling Green 87-73 in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mid-American Conference men's tournament title Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Bobby Hurley and Arizona State don’t need to research much to get the lowdown on their first-round NCAA Tournament opponent, Buffalo.

Hurley, of course, used to coach the Bulls and when he left for ASU turned the program over to coach Nate Oats. But if his Sun Devils need any reminding that the No. 6 seed that went 31-3 this season is very much for real, they can turn to the tape of Buffalo’s 2018 NCAA Tournament blowout win over No. 4 seed Arizona.

Seeded 13th, the Bulls used pace, ball movement and ball screens to pick apart the Wildcats’ defense.

And they returned this season having lost only guard Wes Clark from their core. Hurley knows the challenge ahead.

“We have a tendency to watch our teams more when we can, and we’re both really busy with our own seasons,” Hurley said Wednesday night after ASU beat St. John’s to advance out of the First Four. “I try to watch Buffalo when I can and root for (Oats).

“I just know for sure watching Nate Oats teams, they take on his character and his personality by how hard-nosed he is and how fiery he is. And his kids play extremely hard and they have a chip on their shoulder. The whole mid-major thing, I think they’re tired of that. So it’s going to be a heck of a game.”

Here are a few of the challenges that lie ahead for the Sun Devils, who face the Bulls on Friday in Tulsa, Okla.

Time: 1 p.m. MST

Radio: 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station

TV: TNT


Buffalo players to know

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

G C.J. Massinburg: The 6-foot-3 senior leads the Bulls in scoring (18.3 points per game) and is second in rebounding (6.6). He’s also their best three-point shooter at 39.6 percent.

F Nick Perkins: At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Perkins will be tasked with controlling the paint against the Sun Devils. He can score inside and out, averaging 14.4 points per game while taking a third of his shots beyond the arc, where he hits 37.8 percent of his threes.

G Jeremy Harris: The lanky 6-foot-7 wing is a danger off the bounce. He’s averaging 14 points per outing but also is a play-maker who will make the right pass if help defense arrives on drives. Oddly, his three-point shooting hasn’t been on this year. He shot 42 percent from three in 2017-18 but has only hit at a 27 percent clip this year.


Containing in isolation

Let’s start by examining this arguably unfairly-titled video of Oats’ boys attacking now-Suns rookie center and former Wildcat power forward Deandre Ayton.

While not all of these issues were about Ayton, it does highlight how miscommunication or lack of it altogether will bite a team against Buffalo. The team runs a four- and sometimes five-out offense that uses NBA-looking sets to force switching and thus mismatches. Then, the Bulls have the talent to attack in space.

Harris, effectively a power forward, found himself in isolation situations over and over against Ayton last tournament, at which point the Bulls cleared it out for him to go one-on-one.

ASU doesn’t have two lumbering bigs like Arizona did a year ago. Forward Zylan Cheatham can defend almost every position and will be an asset.

Still, expect Buffalo to put starting center Romello White in similar situations and to attack players like Taeshon Cherry, a freshman who tends to gamble on defense, with off-ball and on-ball screens.


Spacing and pacing


(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Hurley’s use of a zone defense in the First Four win over St. John’s might help get the Bulls out of their pick-and-roll heavy attacking. That said, it’ll open up opportunities for three-pointers and offensive rebounds.

With competent shooters across the the board, Buffalo takes 44.5 percent of its shot attempts at the rim and 43.4 percent from three, taking just 12.1 two-point jumpers, the least efficient shot in basketball.

Buffalo excels creating the aforementioned mismatches to set up dribble-drives to the basket. That leads to the layups or open threes on kicks.

That’s the lowdown in terms of halfcourt offense.

In transition, however, is where the Bulls kill. ASU had spells of lackadaisical games early on in the season and can’t afford poor transition defense against the 16th-fastest-paced team in college basketball. Buffalo uses pushes and secondary breaks to find open shooters, and Oats doesn’t mind if his players pull well beyond the arc in transition.

For Arizona State, that’s where point guard Remy Martin’s health comes in. He played 23 minutes against St. John’s.

“As we had control of the game I tried to get him in and out of the game as I needed because the last thing I wanted to do was give him a chance to reinjure himself and reaggravate that injury. So I thought he moved fairly well at times,” Hurley told reporters Wednesday.

“But he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around. And he’s going to — he’ll tell me he’s getting close to 100 percent. I don’t know if he’s being completely truthful when he says that, though.”

A six-point, six-turnover game against St. John’s showed Martin is not 100 percent, and if he’s not by Friday, he must at least control the tempo — and the ball — to keep the Bulls from running. Limiting turnovers is the biggest task for the Sun Devils, who have the athleticism to run with Buffalo but should have a better chance of winning if they pick their spots to run and hit the brakes when the Bulls are trying to open the game up.

“… (To) continue to try to get Remy to 100 percent is going to be key in that department. Buffalo, their guards are really good … they can pressure the ball,” Hurley told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


Pounding it inside

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Contrasting Buffalo’s shot selection style, ASU takes 41.1 percent of its shots at the rim, 35.8 percent from three and 23.1 percent from mid-range.

Arizona State found success in the first half against St. John’s by working inside-out through White and Cheatham.

“I think it’s just — you could run offense through Zylan and even Romello White early, and we were able to take advantage of the paint some, more so early in the game than as the game wore on,” Hurley said. “But it established a focus of getting the ball inside.”

That would seem to be a more safe strategy than attempting to run with the Bulls, who despite their fast pace turn the ball over just 13.5 percent of the time, 18th-best in the nation.

The Sun Devils can use post play to kick out for open threes or to pump-fake and drive, something that would benefit a team led in scoring by the attacking Luguentz Dort.

After all, ASU ranks third in NCAA this season by taking 0.442 free throws per field goal attempt. Getting to the line will also help in tempo terms.

“The free throws … that’s one thing we did down the stretch in the clutch time to keep the separation in the game,” Hurley told Doug & Wolf of the St. John’s win. “Zylan stepped up, Lu, those guys made big free throws.”

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