The NCAA tournament waited till the latter stages of its opening day to deliver its first real upset. Yes, Loyola-Chicago’s buzzer-beater to beat 6-seed Miami was ostensibly an upset, but the Hurricanes were favored by just one point, and their second-leading scorer watched from the sideline thanks to a left-foot injury. Thirteen-seed Buffalo’s complete domination of no. 4 seed Arizona in Boise on Thursday night was the opening chapter of a Cinderella story.
The Wildcats looked lost from the opening tip, surrendering 3 after 3 and rebound after rebound en route to a thorough 89–68 first-round defeat. The Bulls shot 54.8 percent from the field and went 15-of-30 from 3. While much of the focus after the loss will be on the lackluster play of Arizona’s big men, it was the Wildcats guards who allowed a trio of Buffalo backcourt members (CJ Massinburg, Wes Clark, and Jeremy Harris) to combine for 67 points on 57.8 percent shooting. But for as bad as Arizona was defensively, the Wildcats were worse on offense. The Pac-12 champs shot 2-of-18 from deep — a far cry from the 37.7 percent accuracy from beyond the arc they displayed leading up to the tournament — and star guards Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins combined to shoot 33.3 percent from the field.
In what should be his final game with Arizona, presumptive no. 1 pick Deandre Ayton’s 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting were far below his regular-season numbers — 20.3 points on 61.6 percent shooting — and even further from what could be expected from him against a team that regularly plays just one player taller than 6-foot-7 at any given moment. At times, Ayton looked like a superstar, collecting boards and finishing at the rim. But more often than not, he looked like, well, a freshman.
As a prize for their dominance, the Bulls earned a trip to the second round on Saturday, where they’ll face Kentucky, which survived another upset bid earlier in the day, beating Davidson 78–73.
For the Wildcats, the loss closed a year of disappointment. After bowing out early to Xavier in last spring’s Sweet 16, Sean Miller’s club entered the season ranked third in the country. They returned a trio of starters in Trier, Alkins, and Dusan Ristic, and replaced star forward Lauri Markkanen with Ayton — a 7-foot, 243-pound behemoth who finally answered the question, What if David Robinson could shoot 3s? But the season started with a collapse in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, during which the Wildcats lost three in a row, including a double-digit thrashing against Purdue. Then came a handful of brushes with the NCAA and a still-uncorroborated ESPN report that claimed an FBI wiretap revealed Miller discussing paying Ayton $100,000, and the campaign seemed in danger of being lost. It wasn’t until later in the year, when they secured a regular-season Pac-12 championship and then a conference tournament crown, that it seemed they had finally put it all together.
This should have been the team that finally carried Arizona back to the Final Four for the first time since 2001. Instead, the Wildcats’ tournament bid ended 40 minutes after it began. Despite having the no. 3 recruiting class and arguably the most talented player in the country, Miller’s team will find itself in a familiar place: on a bus to the airport, having fallen short of their goals once again. Arizona’s 21-point loss was the largest first-round defeat by a no. 4 seed to a 13-seed since Vanderbilt lost to Siena by the same margin in 2008. And that undersells the underachievement: No player on that Commodores squad logged a single minute in the NBA, and Miller’s squad should have multiple pros.
The Pac-12 now becomes the first major conference to exit the NCAA tournament. All three of its teams are done, with UCLA and Arizona State losing in the First Four, and Arizona crashing out of the bracket on Thursday. Like the Wildcats, the conference opened the year with high hopes of ending its championship drought. The last West Coast program to hang a banner was Arizona in 1997. Ayton — the player with the potential to raise the Wildcats to the same heights — wouldn’t be born for another year.