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  • The most stunning result of the first round of the NCAA tournament came Thursday night, when unlikely Buffalo brought an unceremonious end to Arizona's tumultuous season.
By Greg Bishop
March 16, 2018

BOISE — As Buffalo’s lead stretched from five to 10 and then 25—25!—points at the Taco Bell Arena late Thursday in the NCAA tournament, the faces on the Arizona bench told the story of the Wildcats' strange, tumultuous season. Heads fell into hands. Eyes locked onto sneakers. Tears welled. The bench watched, minute after excruciating minute, shot after shot surrendered, the faces growing longer with each subsequent Bulls celebration, of which there were many.

So many. Buffalo’s mascot, Victor E. Bull, danced and played air guitar and tossed T-shirts into the stands. The band played at max volume and even started, oddly, a whoomp there it is chant. The end of the Buffalo bench stood before the final minute, wearing long-sleeve white T-shirts that screamed HORNS UP, before taking them off to enter the game, so lopsided was the score by that point.

The final tally read 89–68, in favor of the University at Buffalo—and don’t you dare type of. The horn sounded and bedlam erupted on the Bulls half of the arena, while silence engulfed the area behind the Arizona bench. The Wildcats slogged through the handshake line, then walked quickly into their locker room, away from a season unlike any other, a season that saw the team ensnared in an FBI probe and faced with a PED scandal, and a season that featured perhaps the best big man in the country, and included a No. 2 ranking, an early slide and a Pac-12 Tournament victory and then …this. Easily the most shocking defeat on the first real day of the NCAA tournament. Not a win so much as a knockout.

Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

The Wildcats' two most controversial players—center Deandre Ayton and guard Allonzo Trier—did not accompany coach Sean Miller to the stage after their loss. Questions lingered, as many as the three-pointers Buffalo rained on Arizona. Not about Ayton, who will almost certainly jump to the NBA. But about Miller and whether he will be back, what kind of team the Wildcats will return and what will result from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball and how Arizona figures into that.

Miller was calling Ayton the best freshman in program history. Ayton was calling Miller his greatest basketball influence. And that was nice, even touching, but it glossed over the uncertain future that awaited Arizona on Thursday night. It also ignored the season that was not. Miller tried to keep the focus on the game after—tough draw, tougher match-up, pressure defense that took the Wildcats out of their preferred offensive sets. “They beat us from start to finish,” Miller said.

To his credit, Miller took question after question. It could not have been easy. Someone asked him how this season will be remembered. He mentioned his team’s record, its tournament appearance, all the work. He didn’t use the words FBI or investigation or scandal or anything the question had pointed at, the dichotomy of this year, the gulf between the things that happened off the court and the success the Wildcats had on it.

Arizona had arrived here wanting to be anywhere other than its opening day news conference, which was held late Wednesday afternoon. Usually, these are mundane affairs, a bunch of questions about match-ups and turning points and what kind of bread do you like most (which was an actual question Wednesday). For Arizona, every other query was instead about distractions or investigations or payments and for every non-answer—every we control what we can control; every we can’t worry about all that stuff—the body language of Miller and his players said something else entirely. Namely, when will this be over?

Soon, it turned out. Miller would no longer have to answer questions about the ESPN report that said he was caught on an FBI wiretap arranging a $100,000 payment for Ayton, which Miller vociferously denied. Trier wouldn’t have to dodge queries to his positive PED test for trace amounts of the same substance that led to his 19-game suspension last season (which he has appealed). Ayton wouldn’t have to hear all the chants from opposing fans about money taken and bribes accepted. None of them would have to answer for Arizona’s porous defense that ultimately did the Wildcats in on Thursday.

Everything was different Thursday. Worse, even. Ayton had won Pac-12 tournament MVP honors with a virtuoso run, scoring 74 points and grabbing 38 rebounds. But as Buffalo’s coach, Nate Oats, scoured Arizona’s film, he began to notice a pattern. No one that Arizona played in conference seemed to pressure it.

Buffalo would do that and Buffalo had scorers and Buffalo connected on 9 of its 14 three-pointers in the second half alone. There were C.J. Massinburg and Jeremy Harris and Wes Clark, doing to Arizona what Arizona does to lesser foes. What was most shocking was just how dominant the triumph was. Not even close. A total beating.

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At the end of Buffalo’s news conference, Massinburg asked for his microphone to be turned back on. He then chided President Barack Obama for picking Arizona, adding an “I had to,” for busting Obama’s bracket. But Obama wasn’t alone there. Many picked Arizona to make the Final Four. Some picked the Wildcats to win it all. Few—outside of Buffalo, anyway, expected Arizona to be gone after its opening game.

None of that mattered Thursday. Gonzaga won here and Ohio State won here and Kentucky won here, setting up one of the best Round for 32 sites in the tournament in recent memory. A Kentucky-Arizona match-up, between two teams that started the season in the top five, was enticing and, for a day anyway, it looked like chaos had taken a loss at the NCAA tournament. Not so fast, said Buffalo and its oddly-named mascot and its shooters. This is the tournament.

Chaos always wins in March.

It’s sustained chaos, the kind that Arizona fought through and succumbed to this season, that’s harder to overcome.

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