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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 7 Buffalo Bulls

Nate Oats has his team ready for a second straight NCAA Tournament trip.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Buffalo vs Arizona Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 27-9 (15-3 MAC); Lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament
Key Returning Players: CJ Massinburg (Sr., G), Nick Perkins (Sr., F), Jeremy Harris (Sr., G), Montell McRae (Sr., F), Jayvon Graves (So., G), Davonta Jordan (Jr., G), Dontay Caruthers (Sr., G)
Key Losses: Wes Clark
Key Newcomers: Jeenathan Williams (Fr., F), Ronaldo Segu (Fr., G), Tra’Von Fagan (So., F via Florida Southwestern State).

Losses to Cincinnati, South Dakota State, St. Bonaventure, Syracuse and Texas A&M during non-conference play didn’t deter what would become the Bulls’ best season in program history. All Buffalo did was march through MAC play, going 15-3 before coasting to three double-digit victories during the MAC Tournament in Cleveland. Then came the season’s defining moment: an 89-68 rout of Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Boise, Idaho.

With multiple significant pieces back in the mix, the Bulls are poised for another trip to the NCAA Tournament, and will be considered the heavy favorite in the MAC.

Key Non-Conference Games

More big opportunities await Buffalo in non-conference play this season. Some resume-building games include West Virginia, Saint Bonaventure, Syracuse, Marquette and a home-and-home series with Southern Illinois.

Nov. 9 @ West Virginia
Nov. 12 @ Southern Illinois
Nov. 30 vs. Milwaukee (in Belfast, Northern Ireland)
Dec. 18 @ Syracuse
Dec. 21 @ Marquette

Three Things to Watch

CJ Massinburg’s star turn

The senior guard from Dallas is primed to become one of the nation’s best players after a stellar junior season. He finished off last season with point totals of 19 and 18 points against Arizona and Kentucky, respectively, in the NCAA Tournament.

The 6-foot-3, 194-pound sociology major ended up averaging 17 points per game last year, good enough to rank 163rd in the country, so there’s plenty of room for him to bolster his numbers. The one certainty will be Massinburg being on the floor a lot after he logged 1,222 minutes of action last year, which ranked second in the MAC and 51st nationally.

Fouls and freebies

The Bulls were tremendous last season at scoring, assisting and rebounding, hence the program’s new benchmark for success. But the Bulls can pinpoint one area where improvement is possible: fouling. Out of 351 teams in the country, Buffalo ranked 349th by committing 755 fouls in 36 games. That led to opponents enjoying more trips to the free throw line -- 860 foul shot attempts, compared to only 695 for the Bulls. Imagine the possibilities for Buffalo if opponents aren’t presented with opportunities at free points.

Tighten up on D

Buffalo’s offensive success overshadowed its inability to keep opponents from scoring at times. The Bulls did average 84.6 points per game last season, which ranked sixth nationally. Quite exceptional, really. Their Adjusted Offensive Efficiency per Kenpom was ranked No. 34 in the country.

But, the Bulls turned around and yielded 76.2 points per contest, a mark that ranked 274th in the country and 11th in the MAC. They finished up ranked No. 135 in Kenpom AdjD. There’s clearly room for improvement on that end.

X Factor

Nick Perkins’ role shifted after 10 games last season. He went from starting to coming off the bench, but his production never changed. He averaged 16.2 points per game and connected on 47.4 percent of his shots. He also grabbed six rebounds a game to piece together a solid junior season.

There’s every reason to expect him to return to the starting lineup and form a dynamic one-two punch with CJ Massinburg.