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National Columnist

'Bucknell problems' are 'nerd stuff'

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Stop me if you've heard this one before: Bucknell point guard Steven Kaspar missed practice this year because he hurt himself by sitting too long in one spot, locking up his back as he was designing an app for his smart phone.

Sorry. That wasn't fair. Of course you've never heard that one before. Here's an easier one. Stop me if you've heard this one before:

The kids at Bucknell are really freaking smart.

Well, they are. And you've probably heard that before, but to ignore it now because it's a story that has been told, well, that doesn't sit right with me. As a concept, the notion that the kids at Bucknell -- or at any high-achieving academic school that sent a team to the NCAA tournament, like Davidson or Harvard or Cal -- are enthusiastic college students is old news. But Steven Kaspar isn't a concept. He's a real kid, with a real story.

A really weird story.

Did you just tell me, Steven, that you hurt yourself this year designing an app?

"Bucknell problems," he said, smiling.

Kaspar isn't a concept. Neither is the best player at Bucknell, senior center Mike Muscala, a 6-foot-11 future pro who has scored 2,027 points, grabbed 1,083 rebounds and blocked 271 shots. In the past few weeks Muscala has earned three pretty cool awards:

--Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year.

--Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year.

--Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Muscala is the first player in Patriot League history to win all three awards, which means he is, arguably, the most impressive student-athlete in the exceptionally impressive student-athlete history of the Patriot League.

Bryson Johnson is not a concept, either. He's a 6-foot-2 shooting guard who owns the Patriot League record with 321 career 3-pointers. In his career he has scored 1,375 points and made the Patriot League All-Academic team twice, and those accomplishments are not in the order Johnson would prefer to list them.

He's from Nova Scotia, and when he was spotted years ago by a Bucknell assistant at an AAU event in Louisville, Ky., and eventually invited onto campus for an official visit. Johnson was set up with some members of the faculty because the people at Bucknell knew what mattered to Johnson and to his family. Johnson is majoring in economics. Some day he'll be your boss.

In the meantime Bryson Johnson is one of the most prolific shooters in the NCAA tournament.

And an excuse for the NCAA to pretend it cares about academics.

Every year the NCAA insists on referring to the players in this tournament as "student-athletes." All over the country, news conferences begin with a moderator saying something along these lines, "And now we'll open it up for questions to the student-athletes."

All over the country, the media cringes -- and not because we think the players don't deserve to be called student-athletes. They do. But the NCAA doesn't deserve to throw around that moniker, to pretend as if those are plausibly equal roles when the NCAA itself is crushing the "student" right out of the "student-athlete" by approving of a postseason that will remove players from the classroom for weeks at a time.

That's pretty much all 64 65 68 teams in this tournament, starting with their conference tournament and then extending to the first week of the big event. The teams that keep winning? They keep missing classes. By the time four teams have played their way into the Final Four, they've not seen a classroom for just about a month.

This is the system the NCAA has created, and made a fortune promoting. It's nauseating that the NCAA uses these players as money-making machines, puts them on the schedule of a professional athlete for nearly a quarter of the spring semester -- and it's not like the months of January or February are all that easy, either -- and then throws around the phrase "student-athlete" all March as if the NCAA actually cares. The NCAA doesn't care. It can't, not as it continues to undermine the charade of the spring "academic" semester.

But at Bucknell they care. They care a lot. The men's basketball team is on a streak of cumulative 3.0 GPA's that dates seven semesters.

Steven Kaspar's back is better, by the way. He moved into the starting lineup six games ago for a 28-5 team that earned an 11th seed and a spot opposite sixth-seeded Butler on Thursday. And his app is almost complete, too. What is the app, anyway?

"Read the Bible in a year," Kaspar says. "That's the app I'm working on."

An app about reading?

"Nerd stuff," he says.

Nah. Student-athlete stuff. I can say it.

But the NCAA should take that phrase out of its mouth.

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