By Thomas Walter, Bucknell Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Patriot League Championship banners of the past hang from the rafters. The bleachers are recoiled to make room for extra baskets. There are no fans cheering, no music blaring, and no whistles wailing. There’s just the sound of bouncing basketballs and laughter. The mood is light in Sojka Pavilion five days before the Bucknell men’s basketball team opens its campaign to defend the Patriot League Championship. The clock is ticking down.
The players are all shooting around and busting each other’s chops. Fifteen minutes until practice starts. The clock continues to tick down. In the middle of it all is senior captain Cameron Ayers; the most experienced returning player on this Bison squad. He’s shooting jump shot after jump shot as the clock ticks down to the start of practice. He laughs with his two shooting companions and puts up a couple more shots. The clock is still ticking. Head coach Dave Paulsen walks into the gym. The clock hits zero. There are no more laughs and no more shots. Ayers must immediately flip the switch and become the leader this team needs him to be: vocal and hard-working; the single best player on both sides of the court at every single moment. To him, anything less than another Patriot League Championship isn’t a success. The clock isn’t ticking anymore. No more playing around. It’s time to go to work.
Basketball is in Ayers’ blood. His father, Randy, has been around the game at the highest levels his entire life, coaching Ohio State for eight years, and then working as an assistant coach in the NBA for the last 16 years. His brother, Ryan, was a team captain at Notre Dame in his senior season and now plays professional ball overseas.
“It’s been a blessing. Going to different games and meeting different players and coaches was always fun for me,” explains Ayers. “I grew up watching my brother play and always tried to follow in his footsteps. He’s one of my biggest role models. Seeing his success and always being able to ask him questions was huge. I always knew I could learn from him. And my mom was my biggest supporter, always driving me to different games. Growing up around the sport helped me develop a strong basketball IQ.”
It was that strong IQ that made Ayers a highly coveted recruit coming out of Germantown Academy. Ayers won numerous awards in high school: team captain, two-time Inter-Ac MVP, two-time Associated Press AA All-State honoree, Second Team All-Philadelphia and Second Team All-Southeast Pennslyvania. He helped lead Germantown to three Inter-Ac championships. He scored 1,483 points in his high school career, fifth-most in school history, and averaged 22.9 points per game as a senior.
Upon arriving to campus in the fall of 2010, Ayers was the final piece of the puzzle for the Bison. He rounded out a core group of four players that also included NBA draft pick Mike Muscala, Joe Willman and Bryson Johnson. In the three seasons they played together Bucknell reached program highs. The Bison won two Patriot League Championships, three straight regular-season Patriot League titles (first team in Patriot League history to do so), tallied a total of 78 wins (a program record), won 28 games last season (another program record), made two trips to the NCAA Tournament, as well as a trip to the second round of the NIT.
Although he didn’t get as much praise and attention as the other members of that core four, Ayers’ collegiate numbers and honors are as impressive as his high school accomplishments. His field goal percentage has always been better than 44% despite taking the majority of his shots from the perimeter, he has never shot worse than 75% from the foul line, and he has been named to the Patriot League All-Rookie Team (freshman year), Second Team All-Patriot League (sophomore year), and both First Team All-Patriot League and to the Patriot League All-Tournament team (junior year).
“I think my maturity level and conditioning have helped me succeed more each year,” explains Ayers. “When I got here the game was so fast. Now, as I’ve gotten older, the game is a lot slower for me because of experience and time.
But without Muscala, Willman and Johnson the weight and expectations of the program fall directly on Ayers’ shoulders.
“There’s definitely a little bit [of weight] on my shoulders, but I’m not trying not to put any pressure on myself,” says Ayers. “Basketball is a team game and guys are going to have to step up. But, we’re not worrying about where we’ll be a month from now, we’re just trying to focus on getting better each and every day.”
For the first minute of practice the team works on shooting drills, alternating shots for a minute to see who can make the most. Ayers works solely with one of the assistant coaches. For the first minute he misses only one shot he takes; the last one. His shot is smooth, firing the ball towards the hoop from the same exact position time after time after time. It is a simple and easily repeatable shot. His focus is sharp on the task at hand. It has to be. He has to bring the highest level of energy day after day if this team is going to get to the heights Ayers wants to reach. The season is almost here. The clock is ticking.
Ayers’ last season donning the Bison jersey will be his most difficult to capture Patriot League glory. He believes anyone can win the league crown this year, but acknowledges that newcomers Boston University and Loyola Maryland will be threats to the Bison. Boston is the preseason favorite to win the league. To make matters worse the Terrriers will be gunning for Ayers, who made the go-ahead basket to beat them his freshman year.
“Those are two very solid teams,” Ayers says. “BU is very good. I know a lot of the guys on that team are from Philadelphia. I played and lost to some of them in high school so there is a friendly rivalry there. I’m definitely excited.”
On his busiest days sometimes it is hard to find the energy to compete at his hardest every moment. Those days he has class from 8:30 in the morning until noon. There’s a brief break for a lunch followed by another class from 1 to 2 p.m. Then it’s time for a quick nap before lift at 3, studying film with Coach Paulsen at four and then practice at 5. By the time practice, stretching and dinner are done it’s close to 9 p.m. He admits that it can be tiring, but motivation both from friends and family and himself pushes him to keep on going.
This season Ayers was named co-captain along with junior guard Steven Kaspar. It’s an honor that he appreciates, and is another motivating factor for him to perform at the highest level at all times. He’s doing his best to lead by example: trying to be the best person he can be, playing his role correctly, and being focused and aggressive on every single play. His biggest focus now is pushing his teammates to talk more.
“I’m trying to get them to talk more on the defensive end and get more stops. We have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket, but our defense is inconsistent,” says Ayers. “During practice I’m trying to lead by example when I’m yelling. Mike, Joe and Bryson all talked a lot and that really helped me defensively. I know some guys are quiet by nature, so I just need to get them focused and locked in every play.”
To prepare for his final chapter, this summer Ayers went back to his roots. He trained with his brother and father when they were home, he played in a summer league, and worked some basketball camps. Ayers knew he was going to be asked to do more of everything this season. He worked out three times a week, but focused more on developing an even more consistent jump shot.
“I’m going to have to put some more points up on the board, but I’m definitely going to have to defend as well. I have to be looking to get more guys involved, too,” Ayers explains. “I know I’ll be seeing more double teams and more pressure than last year because you know we had the big fella down low who took most of the burden.
“We’re trying not to dwell on the loss of those older guys. They were obviously big contributors to our team and they will be dearly missed on and off the court. But, we’re trying to create own identity this year. We have a lot of guys back but just not with a lot of experience. We’re going to mature and get better each day.”
Those older guys are gone now. There will be no more flying under the radar for Ayers. He knows that for this team to be successful it’s going to be a process full of patience and maturation and it’s him who must lead them there.
After the shooting drills in practice the team starts to work on defensive techniques. Ayers is talking, yelling, and even screaming. He’s the most vocal person just as he said he needs to be; teaching, and leading by example.
Practice then shifts to scrimmaging while implementing certain offensive and defensive sets. For awhile Ayers doesn’t shoot. He’s facilitating for his teammates. But, his side is losing. He’s not taking control like he needs to. For three years, he hasn’t had this burden. It’s new and will take time to get used to – something that holds true for this season as a whole.
But, then Ayers attacks. He knocks down a difficult fadeaway jumper from the elbow. He follows that up with inside-out dribble that leads to a leaning shot to his left; swish. Chris Hass is his victim in practice on this day. There will be many others in the weeks to come. Paulsen challenges Hass to stop Ayers, but he simply can’t. Ayers takes a dribble backwards and swishes another jumper for three. He is given the ball one last time. He slips by Hass again, then finagles his way between two more defenders, flips up a finger-roll that kisses the glass softly and drops smoothly through the net.
The start of the season is here. A large part of the team’s success will depend on how quickly the team can mature and adapt to the loss of three of the greatest players in program history. The other part will depend on just how well Ayers can play. His quest for another Patriot League Championship has started. Gone are Muscala, Willman and Johnson. Can Ayers elevate his game in his final season to carry this team?
The season has arrived. It’s time for Cameron Ayers to go to work. The clock is ticking.
Note: This story appeared in a recent edition of the Bucknell Basketball Gameday Program.