NCAA Tournament First Round Game
No. 7 Rutgers (22-9) vs. No. 10 Buffalo (23-9)
How To Watch, Listen, Stats & Keys To Victory
Where: Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut
Tip-off: Friday, March 22nd at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2 - Adam Amin and Kara Lawson
Radio: Live Listen - WCTC 1450 AM - Ralph Bednarczyk and Mark Peterson; WRSU 88.7 FM - Justin Sontupe & Jack Ostrove
RPI Rankings: Rutgers #29; Buffalo #25
Vegas Line: Rutgers -2.5
Series History: Rutgers won the lone meeting between these two schools at the RAC in 1998 by the score of 70-47.
Rutgers NCAA Tournament History: This is the Scarlet Knights’ 25th appearance and enter with a record of 36-24 all-time, including two Final Fours. They last played in the NCAA’s in 2015, advancing to the second round before losing to no. 1 seed UConn.
SB Nation Buffalo site: Bull Run
Buffalo: Cierra Dillard - 25.2 points, 5.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.8 steals; Summer Hemphill - 14.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals; Theresa Onwuka - 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals; Hanna Hall - 6.5 points, 2.9 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals; Brittany Morrison - 6.4 points, 5.7 rebounds; Courtney Wilkins - 6.4 points, 2.6 rebounds
Rutgers: Stasha Carey - 12.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.4 blocks; Arella Guirantes - 12.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals; Charise Wilson - 7.5 points, 2.3 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals; Noga Peleg Pelc - 5.4 points, 1.2 rebounds; Tekia Mack - 5.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals; Victoria Harris - 4.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals
Head coach Felicia Leggette-Jack has led Buffalo to four consecutive 20+ win seasons and this is their third NCAA Tournament trip in the past four years. She previously was the head coach at Indiana from 2006-2012, before coming to Buffalo. The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most, having won six of its last seven games.
The MAC Tournament champions are battle tested and went to the Sweet 16 in last season’s NCAA Tournament. They finished in fourth place in the MAC, but made a run in the conference tournament, beating three opponents they suffered losses to earlier in the season.
They are 23-9 overall and led by senior guard and superstar, Cierra Dillard. She is the nation’s second leading scorer and is prolific from three-point range, having made 98 of 287 attempts for 34.1% this season. However, this is a balanced team that averages 76.1 points and 40.3 rebounds per game. They are a good shooting team, averaging 41.3% from the field, 31.3% from three-point range and 77.3% from the free throw line.
Keys To Victory
Rutgers needs to be aggressive from the opening tip and not let Buffalo get comfortable on the offensive end. The full court 55 defense needs to be disciplined and going at full tilt. If Rutgers can force a lot of turnovers, it will help limit shot opportunities for the Bulls, who give it away 15 times per game. It would also create scoring chances in transition for Rutgers.
On the offensive end, Buffalo will likely show some zone, as they shift from a 1-3-1 to a 2-3 and even a 3-2 from possession to possession. The Scarlet Knights can’t settle for long jumpers, a trap in which they have fallen into at times this season. They need to attack the zone with patience and smart play, properly identifying the zone look Buffalo is showing.
This is where reserves Tekia Mack and Zippy Broughton will be key. They bring energy and a aggressive style that Rutgers will need to win this game. They also bring scoring punch that RU needs to keep up with the high flying Bulls. Ball movement and attacking the rim will be important in the halfcourt, as they must be smart and not get frustrated against the zone of Buffalo. The more Rutgers can get to the free throw line the better, as the team is shooting 73.0% from the line, the best mark for the program in 16 years.
While Dillard will certainly be a problem, she is going to score her fair share of points regardless. I expect Rutgers to mix different players to defend her, including Guirantes, Broughton and possibly Mack, who is four inches taller but has the speed to potentially stick with her. Regardless, the key is limiting the supporting cast. If they can be contained, especially from behind the arc, and the Rutgers bench can outscore Buffalo, it would be a big positive.
The matchup inside between Hemphill and Carey, as well as Harris, could be the true deciding factor in the game. Rutgers plays its best when it’s winning the battle on the boards and outscoring its opponents in the paint.
A major key for the Scarlet Knights being successful of late has been finishing strong, as they have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter by a combined score of 84-41 in the last four games. The lone loss came to eventual Big Ten champ Iowa, who Rutgers stormed back against and were +8 against in the final frame.
To win against a talented and experienced Buffalo team, Rutgers needs its stars to shine, most importantly All-Big Ten selections Carey and Guirantes, as well as to close out the game strong in the fourth quarter. Wilson and Mack need to provide scoring punch as well. If they can wear down the Bulls with constant full court pressure and attack the zone on the other end with balanced scoring, Rutgers can win this game. They’ve held all but one opponent below its scoring average this season, so they have the potential to slow down the high powered offense of Buffalo.
Throw out the seeds, both teams are evenly matched and it truly is a toss up. Execution and grit will ultimately decide the outcome.