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Analyzing Buffalo’s potential opponents in the West Region

The Bulls begin their journey to attain Sweet Sixteen status on Friday. Who would they have to go through to get there?

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Buffalo vs Bowling Green Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Ranked in the AP Poll, situated as a 6-seed, and awaiting the results of a play-in game. The 2018-19 Buffalo Bulls aren’t your typical MAC champion.

Buffalo is the first team this decade from the conference to enter its Round of 64 matchup as the higher seed. The Bulls are tied with Houston for the best record in the country at 31-3, with one non-conference loss to Marquette and two MAC losses to non-tourney teams in Bowling Green and Northern Illinois. Buffalo’s appearance on the national radar dates back to last year’s pummeling of 4-seed Arizona in March Madness. In the 2018-19 regular season, the Bulls took down West Virginia and Syracuse on the road to continue their run of success.

Although Nate Oats told CBS Sports Network on Selection Sunday that his AP No. 18 team feels slighted as a 6-seed, there are benefits to Buffalo’s position in the bracket.

The Bulls wouldn’t run into a 1-seed until the Elite Eight or a 2-seed until the Sweet Sixteen. As Buffalo launches its journey to return to the Round of 32 and achieve its first Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, or possibly even its first Final Four appearance, here is the journey of the potential opponents the Bulls must defeat to accomplish these feats.

Round of 64

(11) Arizona State (22-10) — It’s the matchup of Buffalo past versus Buffalo present. Arizona State returns to a play-in game for the second-straight year under head coach Bobby Hurley. Hurley had a short-lived, but wildly successful campaign at Buffalo, earning the team’s first NCAA Tournament bid in program history in 2015. His assistant during those two seasons was none other than Nate Oats, who brought Buffalo to even further heights including the Round of 32 and a staple in the AP Poll. Now, the two can square off if the Sun Devils defeat St. John’s on Wednesday night.

Arizona State won six of its last eight games in a weaker-than-usual Pac-12, led by the team’s superior rebounding (40.0 RPG, 13th in Division I). The team defeated tournament-bound Mississippi State, Utah State, and Kansas in non-conference, but the Sun Devils had several head-scratching losses which nearly kept them out of the tournament — a 21-point debacle to Washington State and a 16-point loss to Vanderbilt.

(11) St. John’s (21-12) — Coached by Warriors legend Chris Mullin, the Red Storm unexpectedly snuck in as the final at-large bid in the field of 68. St. John’s hasn’t notched a tournament win since the turn of the century, but the Red Storm are equipped with a gifted scorer in Shamorie Ponds (19.5 PPG). Ponds recorded three 30-point performances during St. John’s 12-0 start. But the Red Storm crashed and nearly squandered their bid in late February and March, losing four of their last five including an 86-54 loss to 5-seed Marquette (one of Buffalo’s three losses).

Round of 32

(3) Texas Tech (26-6) If the Bulls surpass the 11-seed play-in game champion, they’ll likely be on track for a major challenge. Chris Beard has built a solid basketball program at Texas Tech in recent years, and the Red Raiders displayed their potential with an Elite Eight appearance in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The team is back with Big 12 Player of the Year and likely lottery pick Jarrett Culver, who averages 18.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 3.7 APG. The Red Raiders are also a stout defensive team, especially in the post, averaging the 15th most blocks in the country. Texas Tech was in the midst of a 9-game win streak when its success came to a sudden and shocking halt to the hands of West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament.

(14) Northern Kentucky (26-8) — This matchup seems highly unlikely, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Norse just a 7% chance of defeating the Red Raiders, but this is March Madness after all. The Horizon League champions actually twice defeated one of the three teams to beat Buffalo, as Northern Kentucky edged Northern Illinois, 88-85, in a November double-overtime thriller. The Norse and Huskies rematched on December 20, and once again, Northern Kentucky left with a 3-point victory. In this era of basketball, many March Madness teams are guard-led, but the Norse operate under 6’8” power forward Drew McDonald, who nearly averages a 20-10 per game for his program.

What’s Next? Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight

If the Bulls run through Arizona State/St. John’s and Texas Tech/Northern Kentucky, the team will have achieved its first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance and flown to Anaheim. The West region presents a challenging 3-seed in Texas Tech, and its 2-seed is just as lethal. Under head coach John Beilein, the Wolverines reached their second championship game appearance of the decade. Michigan’s route to the title was rather easy in 2018, facing 14, 6, 7, 9, and 11 seeds before getting wiped away by eventual champion Villanova. This year’s Michigan (28-6) returns several key pieces including the backcourt duo of Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews.

Other opponents at the Sweet Sixteen stage include 7-seed Nevada (29-4), which made a Sweet Sixteen run of its own last year by defeating a Mo Bamba-led Texas team and storming back from a 22-point deficit to beat Cincinnati. The Wolf Pack retain the same seed this year with a similar core of position-less 6’7” stars — twins Caleb and Cody Martin, as well as Jordan Caroline.

A potential Cinderella that Buffalo could face is 10-seed Florida, which has seen its share of March Madness success over the 21st century, including an Elite Eight as recently as two seasons ago. The Gators (19-15) escaped the bubble and locked up a bid by defeating LSU in the SEC Tournament, proving they’re capable of competing with top-seeds.

If Michigan, Nevada, and Florida all fail to leave Des Moines unscathed, that’ll mean history has been made and Montana will tie 2013 Florida Gulf Coast for the longest run of a 15-seed in tournament history. A Buffalo-Montana matchup is an occurrence typically reserved for coin-flip brackets, but after all, this is March.

Buffalo, with three wins, would continue its run in Anaheim. Probable matchups include (1) Gonzaga, (4) Florida State, (5) Marquette, (8) Syracuse, and (9) Baylor. Others teams in the upper-half of the West region include (12) Murray State and (13) Vermont. The 2002 Missouri Tigers are the only 12-seed to qualify for the Elite Eight, and no 13-seed has ever done it. Gonzaga, Florida State, Marquette, and Syracuse are all tournament veterans.

Gonzaga and Syracuse have each reached Final Fours in the last three seasons, while Florida State ran all the way to the Elite Eight last season and Marquette experienced an Elite Eight run as recently as 2013.

If Buffalo clears this round, the Bulls are Final Four bound.