AMHERST, N.Y. — After surviving a surprising challenge on its home floor, Buffalo is ready for a challenging road ahead.
Nick Perkins had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Buffalo beat Southern Illinois 73-65 on Saturday ahead of a pivotal trip to face Syracuse and No. 21 Marquette next week.
The undefeated Bulls (10-0) are eyeing a return to the NCAA Tournament after upending No. 4 seed Arizona as a 13th seed last year.
"It's the biggest week of our nonconference season," Buffalo coach Nate Oats said. "If we take care of business this week, we pretty much guarantee ourselves an at-large bid."
The reigning Mid-American Conference champs entered the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history after beating then-No. 13 West Virginia on Nov. 9 and have risen in the rankings every week since.
"If we come out and play like we are capable of playing, I think we can get two wins," Oats said. "Even if we get one out of the two, I think we get an at-large bid if we do what we are supposed to in conference."
Southern Illinois (7-5) gave Buffalo a chance to prepare for Tuesday's matchup with Syracuse by switching to a zone defense after the Bulls opened up an early 25-8 lead. The Salukis trimmed the advantage to 33-28 by halftime and came back again in the second half after the Bulls built their largest lead, 59-39, with 10:46 remaining.
"They kind of shocked us," Perkins said of the switch to zone. "It's something that helps us going into Syracuse. Obviously, they play zone for 40 minutes. So SIU, I thought they helped us a little bit with knowing what plays to work."
Perkins scored 11 points during a 17-0 run that forced Salukis coach Barry Hinson to try the zone.
"I thought Perkins would immediately have to go to Springfield and enter the Hall of Fame, the way he played," Hinson said.
Oats said it was the best game of the season for Buffalo's senior sixth man.
"It told him before the game, it's been about a month or so since he got a double-double," Oats said. "It's time to get another one."
Sean Lloyd had 14 points to lead Southern Illinois in its second straight loss.
Buffalo: The Bulls continued their best start since the 1930-31 season, when they finished 15-0. On a 10-game win streak for the first time since 1964-65, the Bulls have also won 17 in a row at home dating to last season.
Southern Illinois: The Salukis have struggled without leading scorer Armon Fletcher, who has been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Saturday's loss followed an 80-52 defeat at home against Murray State.
Point guard Davonta Jordan (11 points) led a defensive effort that forced Southern Illinois into 22 turnovers, including eight charging fouls. The takeaways led to 23 points for the Bulls, which helped make up for a 7-for-30 performance from 3-point range.
Buffalo's leading scorer, CJ Massinburg, wore a wrap on his hand after jamming his finger in practice Tuesday. He struggled with his outside shot, going 0 for 4 from beyond the arc, and finished with 14 points, three below his season average.
Oats was disappointed to see that Syracuse lost at home against Old Dominion on Saturday.
"That's the worst thing we needed right now," Oats said. "If you beat them it's not as much as a quality win either because they lost to Old Dominion, and I think they are going to be playing way harder."
Buffalo visits the Carrier Dome on Tuesday, looking to beat Syracuse for the first time since 1963. The Orange pulled away late to win last year's meeting 81-74.
Southern Illinois hosts Winthrop on Dec. 22 in its final nonconference game.