For the past few years, Buffalo has been one of the finest mid-majors in college basketball. Over the last two seasons, the Bulls won nearly 60 games and back-to-back MAC conference tournaments. In 2018, they upset a highly-touted Arizona squad led by Deandre Ayton in the NCAA Tournament. In the 2019 tourney, they took down Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils before bowing out in the second round.
Nonetheless, it was an exciting era for the Bulls and head coach Nate Oats. Unfortunately for Buffalo, success as a mid-major can be fleeting. The Power Five came calling, and Oats soon became the newest coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Even with Oats (and assistant Hunter Jenkins) gone, the Bulls (2-1) are a formidable foe for UConn in the first round of the 2019 Charleston Classic. Fresh off a big 88-76 victory over Harvard on Saturday, the win marked a step in the right direction for new head coach Jim Whitesell after starting off the season with a disappointing home loss to Dartmouth.
The Bulls are led by Jayvon Graves, an important part of last year’s 32-win squad, who averages a team-best 16.7 points per game as a junior. He’s supplemented by Ronaldo Segu, who leads the team in assists and broke out for 21 points in the win over the Crimson. Outside of Segu and Graves, three other Bulls - Antwain Johnson, Davonta Jordan and Josh Mballa - average double figures.
While the Bulls have a balanced offense in terms of scoring, they live and die by the 3-pointer. More than 45 percent of their points this year have come off of threes, and Buffalo shoots 37.7 percent from deep this season. UConn will certainly need to apply pressure on the perimeter and keep an eye out for Segu, Jordan and Johnson in particular around the arc - they all shoot 50 percent from deep on the year.
Buffalo also rebounds the ball especially well on the offensive end despite being one of the shortest teams in college basketball. Per KenPom, the Bulls have an offensive rebound rate of 35.6 percent, good for No. 48 in the country.
Unsurprisingly, KenPom (and anyone that has caught a game this year) isn’t very high on UConn’s ability to prevent offensive rebounds - the Huskies rank 229th in that category. Fortunately for Dan Hurley and the Huskies, there is a good chance that the size and length of players like Josh Carlton, Akok Akok and Tyler Polley help negate this advantage.
As for the Huskies, they’ll look to get off to a strong start for the first time all season, After going more than five minutes without a basket in the opening half against Florida, UConn did just enough offensively to stave off the Gators and get the win. While the defense has been solid, a faster start offensively will help prevent the Huskies from falling into a big hole early.
The UConn offense may get a huge boost in the form of freshman James Bouknight, who will make his Husky debut after serving a three game suspension for an incident on campus in September.
Bouknight likely won’t play a ton against the Bulls, but could easily be one of the first Huskies off the bench and is regarded by some as UConn’s most talented offensive player. While it may take some time for him to find a regular spot in the rotation, don’t be surprised if he makes an impact in Charleston with some buckets in limited minutes.
After the Huskies’ game against Buffalo, UConn will face either Xavier or Towson on Friday in the bottom half of the bracket. The top of the bracket features matchups between Miami and Missouri State along with Florida and St. Joe’s, meaning that a rematch with either the Hawks or Gators may be in the cards for Sunday.
The Huskies arrived in Charleston on Wednesday, and with back to back games looming, it could be a good barometer for how this team will react if they face the same scenario in the NCAA Tournament.
.@UConnMBB now in the house. Most intense and physical practice of the day.— Kevin Fitzgerald (@KevinTFitz) November 20, 2019
What’s in store for the Huskies this year? Looking to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. pic.twitter.com/vL1oVh4gjE
Prediction: The Bulls hang around, but UConn holds on and gets a 75-71 victory. Bouknight doesn’t play much, but shows flashes of what he can bring to the Huskies’ offense.
How to watch
Where: 2019 Charleston Classic - Charleston College, Charleston, South Carolina
When: 9 p.m. ET
Radio: UConn IMG Radio Network