The Buffalo Bulls could be the new darlings of college basketball. Nate Oats’ team emasculated the Arizona Wildcats last year in the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed, winning 89-68 in a game that did not even feel that close. That was just a sign of things to come, as his veteran unit has gotten off to an 11-0 start this year. [Editor’s note: the Bulls ended calendar year 2018 at 12-1 entering conference play, with a road loss to Marquette.]
Buffalo has gone on the road and won at West Virginia in overtime. They’ve won in the Carrier Dome. They traveled to Ireland and beat another unsung team, San Francisco, that is off to an 11-1 start and will be a factor in the WCC (The Dons are currently power-rated ahead of St. Mary’s and BYU in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings).
Buffalo is ranked 14th in the latest AP Top 25, and so the question is just how high can they climb, both in the rankings, and in where they could possibly be seeded out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC).
The last time a team from the MAC was seeded better than a 12-seed was back in 2008, when Kent State entered the NCAA Tournament as a 9-seed after going 28-6 (with a best win over St. Mary’s). This is the best MAC team since the 2002 Kent State team with Trevor Huffman and Antonio Gates, that surged to the Elite Eight.
Buffalo has their biggest hurdle, and the toughest remaining game, coming up Friday against Marquette on the road. If they win that game, they will have wins over Syracuse, West Virginia, and Marquette on the road. Ken Pomeroy has them at 24th and projected to go 27-4 in the regular season, but if they can win at Marquette the prospects will only increase.
So to try to assess just how high Buffalo can climb, I looked at the last decade of teams that kind of fit Buffalo’s profile in terms of number of quality games in conference and out. The fact that the majority of those teams are either Gonzaga or St. Mary’s or Wichita State is a pretty good indicator of how amazing this run by Buffalo is.
So, let’s start with this: can they get a #1 seed? I know that sounds preposterous. It’s an extreme long shot that would require an undefeated season. Ken Pomeroy gives them a 1.5% chance of being undefeated at the end of the regular season, and that doesn’t include the conference tournament. The MAC overall is stronger this year and is currently ahead of conferences like the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley. The biggest hurdle is Marquette, the only game where they would be an underdog. But even after two games against Toledo (currently 11-1) there are plenty of games where Buffalo would be expected to win 80-90% of the time, but could slip up in any given one.
If–big if–they somehow go undefeated though, I will say this: their resumé would be better than Wichita State back in 2014, when the Shockers got a #1 seed. We don’t know how everything else would shake out but they would have that argument.
More realistically, the upper bound of their seeding is likely around the 3-seed line. And that is only on the condition they beat Marquette. Without it, I think the upper bound of where they can get to is about the 6-seed area. A third quality win over Marquette, coupled with a 30+ win season coming out of the MAC, would put them in company with several mid-majors that have gotten seeded in the 3-5 range. That includes Wichita State and Northern Iowa, and some Gonzaga teams. They would have a much better resumé than the Murray State team that got a #6 seed back in 2012 with a 31-1 record.
If I had to set the over/under today, I would say that their average seed is about 7, with the over/under heavily influenced by the Marquette result.
They already are in much better shape than many mid-majors who had to sweat it out closer to the bubble, and unless they completely collapse and lose 5+ games in the MAC, they are almost certainly a 9-seed or better, matching or exceeding the Kent State team from 2008.
So to sum up:
- Buffalo has an extremely small chance of getting a #1 or #2 seed, if they can go undefeated;
- Buffalo more realistically can get a #3-#5 seed if they beat Marquette, and win the MAC with 30+ overall wins after the conference tourney;
- Buffalo can get a #6 to #8 seed even with a loss to Marquette if they win the MAC regular season and conference titles;
- They are almost certainly not going to drop below that barring a collapse in conference where they go 12-6 or worse.
They are a fun squad to watch and don’t be surprised to see them seeded highly in March.