Posted on: March 7, 2012 1:25 pm

Championship game preview: Patriot

Despite so many upsets in conference tournaments this year, the Patriot League has remained immune to the Cinderella bug. The two best teams during the regular season – Bucknell and Lehigh – will meet in the championship game on Wednesday night, and rightfully so.

The two teams have represented the league the past two seasons in the NCAA tournament, with Lehigh getting a bid in 2010 and Bucknell winning the championship last year. The two best players in the league – and the last three Patriot League Players of the Years – will also battle it out, in Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala.

It gets more intense. Bucknell and Lehigh split the two regular-season contests, with each winning on the opponent’s home floor. The title game will take place at Sojka Pavilion, on Bucknell’s campus.

The game will be a contrast of styles, as Lehigh would prefer to push the ball and get points in transition, while Bucknell bogs you down and plays a halfcourt contest. Lehigh gets a lot of its points by attacking the basket and getting fouled, so Bucknell needs to limit fouls and keep Muscala on the floor. The Bison also need to get out on Lehigh’s shooters. On the other side, Lehigh has to slow down Muscala on the inside, while also keeping an eye on Bucknell’s secondary options. It’s not all Muscala.

It could come down to whether Cameron Ayers can stifle McCollum. In the second meeting, McCollum beat him off the dribble and knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds. What will happen in round three?

-- Jeff Borzello

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: December 16, 2011 5:06 pm
Edited on: December 16, 2011 11:01 pm

Midseason Mid-Major Mojo: Bucknell

By Jeff Goodman

During college basketball's slow time, we're shining the spotlight on some small guys. Today, Bucknell gets some love.

Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen admits that, as a coach, you try not to play favorites. But he's also forthcoming when saying it's awfully difficult with Bryson Johnson because he is everything a college basketball player should embody.

That's why he was dreading the conversation on Thursday morning with Johnson -- one of the nation's top perimeter shooters and a key reason why Bucknell went to the NCAA tournament a year ago. He was set to break the news to Johnson, who started every game a year ago, that he'd be coming off the bench.

"I struggled with it, but he made it so easy," Paulsen said. "Right away, he said, 'I know what you want to talk about.'"

"He's a guy you want to train your guys to be like," Paulsen said. "He's the most passionate, committed guy I've ever coached. He has all the intangibles, the leadership. ... He's the best kid I've ever coached."

And just a week or so ago, Paulsen was worried he might not have Johnson for a while. That's when Johnson came down awkwardly on his knee during practice. The doctors weren't certain how serious the injury was, but Paulsen was sweating it out that night until the results of an MRI the next morning showed no significant damage.

"I was really scared for our team, but more for him," Paulsen said. "I have such a soft spot in my heart for him. ... But he's fine. We held him out against Binghamton, but he's been practicing and he'll play in our next game."

The reason for Paulson bringing Johnson off the bench is not only to give the Bisons scoring punch, but also to get freshman point guard Steven Kaspar in the starting lineup. Thus far, Paulsen has played Cameron Ayers (right) at the point, Randy's kid is more of a two-guard and this will allow him to play his natural position.

"I didn't want to throw Kaspar to the wolves too early," Paulsen explained his reasoning for not making the move earlier. "We started with Minnesota and Vandy."

Bucknell is 6-4 thus far this season, with a game against Richmond on Saturday, and the Bison will enter Patriot League play as the clear-cut favorites -- especially if Kaspar performs as well as his coach is hoping. Ayers leads the team in scoring (12.2), but this team is balanced -- not unlike the one that won 25 games and went 13-1 in league play last season.

Big man Mike Muscala is averaging 12.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, face-up forward Joe Willman is in double-figures (11.1) and Johnson is at 9.4 points per game. Bryan Cohen doesn't have to score much, but the lone senior in the rotation has proven himself as the best perimeter defender in the league.

"We have a chance to be really good," Paulsen said. "It's different than last year, though. Now we have to learn how to handle the expectations."

Photo: AP

Posted on: March 15, 2011 3:16 pm

Bucknell looks to write its own legacy

Posted by Jeff Borzello

This year’s Bucknell team wants everyone to know that it is not the same team from 2005 and 2006 – even though those two teams won their first-round games and put Bucknell on the college basketball map.

It might sound strange, but the Bison are looking to write their own story, not just pick up on one written five years ago.

“We acknowledged it but we’re creating our own legacy,” G.W. Boon said after last Friday’s 72-57 Patriot League championship game win over Lafayette. “Every player and coach is here because of the legacy, but you don’t want to lose focus.”

In 2005, Bucknell pulled off the one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, knocking off heavily-favored No. 3 seed Kansas in the first round. The next season, the Bison received a No. 9 seed and defeated Arkansas in the first round.

They have not been back to the tournament since then.

“I remember I was a Kansas fan when they beat Kansas,” Boon said. “When Bucknell came knocking on my door the next summer to try and recruit me, I automatically knew who they were, and I knew it was a team and a program that was about winning.

“I signed up to be a winner and write my own legacy with my teammates.”

Boon said the members of those teams came to practice and hung out with the current players, talking about what the hype surrounding the program and what it was like to win those games.

The former players were the first ones to dismiss the idea of carrying on a legacy.

“They hung out with us and I was saying we were following in their footsteps,” Boon said. “And they were like, “No, we did what we did.’ It’s our time.”

Head coach Dave Paulsen was not around for those NCAA tournament teams, taking over the program from Pat Flannery in 2008.

The core of this year’s team has been through three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, including a seven-win campaign in 2008-09. They went through a coaching change and the dark days of the program. Paulsen credits them with staying for four years and seeing the fruition of their hard work.

“It was important for me not to be Pat Flannery-light,” Paulsen said. “None of them chose me. But I chose all of them.”

On a senior-laden team, it was a freshman that played a major part in the conference championship game and could be a factor in the NCAA tournament against Connecticut.

Philadelphia native Cameron Ayers had interest from schools like Notre Dame, Clemson, Michigan and Virginia coming out of high school, but Ayers chose a struggling Patriot League program.

The decision seems to be paying off.

“It was one of the big things I looked for,” Ayers said. “If I went somewhere else, I might not have been playing as much as a freshman. I wanted to be part of something special.”

The Bison are confident heading into their first-round game against the Big East tournament champion Huskies. With Mike Muscala on the inside and Darryl Shazier running the show, Bucknell feels it can compete with anyone in the country.

And it has nothing to do with the program’s previous success.

“We haven’t arrived yet,” Boon said. “We’re going to go into our game on Thurday or Friday, whoever we play, and we’re planning on winning.”


More NCAA tournament coverage
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 11, 2011 6:57 pm

Welcome to the Dance, Bucknell Bison

LEWISBURG, Pa. –  This may not be the Bucknell team of 2005 and 2006, when it made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, including an upset of No. 3 Kansas in 2005. The 2011 version will get a chance to make its own history, though, with the Bison’s 72-57 win over upstart Lafayette in the championship game of the Patriot League tournament. Mike Muscala went for 18 points, while Cameron Ayers came off the bench to contribute 12.

Bucknell, located in rural Pennsylvania, has now reached the NCAA tournament five times in its history. The Bison had one of their best seasons in program history, reaching the 25-win plateau for the second time in their history. They have won 10 games in a row, and 19 of their last 20. Bucknell didn’t have an NCAA tournament win before 2005, but it beat No. 3 Kansas that season and then knocked off Arkansas in the first round in 2006. Can this season’s defensive-minded group advance once again?

Player to know: Mike Muscala. The Patriot League’s Player of the Year, Muscala is a 6-foot-11 low-post player who leads the Bison in scoring and rebounding. He can finish with both hands around the rim and also hit face-up jumpers. Muscala blocks shots and corrals boards effectively on the defensive end. He also does damage from the free-throw line, shooting better than 81 percent. He was inconsistent down the stretch of the season, but went for 21 points in the title game. 

The Vitals:

  • Record: 25-8, 13-1 Patriot
  • Team colors: Orange and Blue
  • We’re thinking: 14-seed
  • KenPom ranking: 93
  • RPI: 85
  • Best win: Richmond (24-7)
  • Worst loss: Army (11-19)
  • Notable stat: The Bison are the nation’s sixth-best 3-point shooting team, knocking 40.6 percent of their outside shots.
  • Most recent tournament history: 2006. In the tournament as a No. 9 seed, Bucknell defeated Arkansas in the first round before falling to top-seeded Memphis.

Posted by Jeff Borzello

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 11, 2011 11:46 am

Patriot championship game preview

Because it is played on the home floor of the higher-seeded team, the atmosphere surrounding the Patriot League championship game always makes it an entertaining game. This season will be no different, as top-seeded Bucknell plays host to upstart sixth-seed Lafayette. Will it be the favorite or the Cinderella story?

Bucknell (24-8, 13-1) has lost only twice since November, falling at Boston College by four and to Army back in late January. The Bison rolled through conference play, although the tournament has not been without close calls. Bucknell avenged its lone loss to Army with an easy, 27-point victory. In the semifinals, though, the Bison needed clutch play down the stretch from Mike Muscala to hold off Lehigh.

The Bison have been doing it with defense this season, allowing 70 points just twice since late December. They force difficult shots in a half-court setting and don’t allow any second-chance opportunities. Muscala is the go-to-guy offensively, although he has been inconsistent down the stretch. Darryl Shazier is a playmaker at the point guard spot, while a variety of role players contribute. Freshman Cameron Ayers is coming on strong down the stretch.

Lafayette (13-18, 6-8) has been the surprise of the tournament. The Leopards lost four of their last five to end the regular season, stumbling to a sixth-place finish. They turned it around in the conference tournament, though, knocking off Holy Cross and No. 2 American on the road in back-to-back games. The semifinal game against the Eagles was a double-overtime classic that was decided by a Jim Mower 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

Jared Mintz is the leader for the Leopards, pacing the team in points and rebounds. He has stepped up his play late in the season, averaging 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in his last three games. Mower, the hero in the semifinals, is a 3-point marksman who can get hot in a hurry. Ryan Willen is averaging 15.0 points in his last four. Lafayette relies heavily on the 3-pointer at the offensive end, while the defense has been porous at times.

The match-up to watch in this one will be Muscala vs. Mintz down in the post. Both players are their team’s best scorer and rebounder, although Mintz is playing better down the stretch. Muscala is a tougher player on the boards and in the post, so it will be interesting to see if Mintz can bang with him. Defensively, Lafayette needs to keep Shazier from creating chances for himself and Bucknell’s numerous offensive options. The Bison need to guard the arc and not allow open looks for Lafayette.

Both teams needed clutch performances in the semifinals just to advance to the title game; are we in store for another classic? Lafayette might not have the defense to make that happen – the Leopards struggle at that end of the floor. Bucknell’s suffocating half-court defense will be a nightmare for Mintz and Willen and won’t allow Mower to get hot from deep. The Bison should advance.

Photo: AP

Posted by Jeff Borzello

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Category: NCAAB
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