LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The Bison men's basketball team opens its 2013-14 season on Friday against Stanford at Maples Pavilion. Tip-off is slated for 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. in Palo Alto), and the game will be televised on Pac-12 Bay Area. Fans in the Central Susquehanna Valley can tune in on Eagle 107 (107.3 FM), and the audio broadcast will also be available for free on BucknellBison.com.
This will be the first meeting between the Bison and Cardinal in men's basketball. Complete game notes can be found here, and below is detailed season preview.
On November 16, just prior to the home-opener against Saint Francis (Pa.), two more banners will be dropped from the Sojka Pavilion rafters. One banner will recognize Bucknell’s 2013 Patriot League regular-season championship, and the other will honor the 2013 Patriot League Tournament title and the sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. The pregame celebration will culminate one of the greatest three-year runs in school and league history: a 78-25 overall record, a 45-6 Patriot League mark, two NCAA bids and an NIT appearance that included a first-round win over Arizona.
Shortly after those banners are unfurled, the ball will be tipped off, and most Bison fans will get their first up-close glimpse of a team that should still have plenty of talent, but one that will feature some new faces and new leadership.
Bryson Johnson, Mike Muscala, Joe Willman and Colin Klebon graduated last May as the winningest class in school history. Muscala (2,036), Johnson (1,384) and Willman (1,162) combined for 4,582 career points, and that trio accounted for over 60 percent of Bucknell’s total points last year. Muscala himself left as the program’s all-time scoring leader. The 6’11” center was a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and an eventual NBA Draft pick. That massive graduation hit will cast another team — most likely Patriot League newcomer Boston University — in the role of preseason favorite, and while he is not quite sure what kind of identity his new-look squad will assume, Bison coach Dave Paulsen is not casting this season aside as a proverbial “rebuilding year.”
When trying to assess how this season might pan out, Paulsen thinks back to 2009-10 — the freshman year for the Muscala-Johnson-Willman-Klebon class. Early that season Paulsen tinkered with both his system and his distribution of minutes, and the results were mixed during the non-conference portion of the schedule. However by mid-January the pieces fell into place, and the Bison finished in second place in the Patriot League regular-season standings.
With a month to go before the season-opener at Stanford, Paulsen confesses that he has more questions than answers when it comes to a rotation and what the team’s identity might look like.
“My mindset, at least right now, is that we will play more guys in our non-conference games,” said Paulsen. “I anticipate going 10 to 12 deep, maybe not within every game, but I think 10 to 12 guys will see significant action in many of those games, so that when we get to conference play we will have a rotation and clear identity, at least in terms of who’s playing the majority of the minutes and how we are structuring what we are doing on defense and offense.”
The willingness to tinker in the non-league games was not a luxury that Paulsen could afford a year ago. Remember, Bucknell did not enter 2012-13 as the favorite to win the Patriot League. That label was bestowed upon Lehigh, which was coming off its NCAA upset of Duke and featured a superstar of its own in C.J. McCollum. Paulsen’s greatest fear last year was that he might have the best team and the best player in school history right in front of him, but one slip-up could keep them out of the postseason altogether. Such is life in the mid-major ranks.
As such, Paulsen coached with an eye on an NCAA at-large possibility. Every game on the schedule was deemed “must-win,” which meant the rotation was kept fairly tight, and the stars were leaned on heavily. Had a two-point loss at No. 12 Missouri been reversed, Bucknell might have been in position for an at-large bid. Fortunately, the Bison did not need it. They went 12-2 in the Patriot League regular season, then dismissed Navy, Army and Lafayette in the Patriot League Tournament to sew up the automatic bid. They would garner a No. 11 seed, the second-highest in program history, but lost a back-and-forth battle to Butler in the Round of 64.
“We didn’t know C.J. McCollum would eventually get hurt, and we have such respect for the other teams in the Patriot League, it would have been a shame to have one of the best Bucknell teams ever and not gone to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT,” Paulsen remarked about last season. “So that meant that we couldn’t take risks in terms of allowing guys to play through mistakes or play minutes before they were ready, because we had to play as if one loss could wreck our season. My approach this year will be different. We might lose a game that if I coached differently we might have won, with the hopes that we are preparing guys who can help us win in February and March.”
Even though some of the faces will change and the offensive and defensive systems might look a bit different, the basic team values that Paulsen preaches every day will remain the same. Those tenets, combined with plenty of talent, formed the foundation for the team’s success over the last three years.
“Our core values have not changed,” Paulsen stressed. “We always talk about embracing the process, getting better every day, and playing with passion and talk and toughness and focus. And our core values on the court are things that prevent defeat: don’t get beat in transition, don’t give up second shots, don’t foul, don’t turn the ball over and make free throws. If you do those things you are going to have a chance to win every time. But it’s obviously easier to do those things when you are more experienced.”
While Bucknell’s graduation losses have been the biggest offseason story, the team does return seven players from its postseason rotation a year ago. Headlining that list is senior co-captain Cameron Ayers, who was a First Team All-Patriot League selection last year after averaging 12.4 points per game.
Ayers has actually been a major contributor in each of the last three seasons. He is smooth, steady and versatile guard who has stood out at both ends of the floor. Ayers is a deadly shooter from both mid-range and the 3-point arc, and he averaged less than a turnover per game while ranking among the league leaders in minutes played last season.
Ayers is a Preseason All-Patriot League pick heading into his senior campaign, and Paulsen has high expectations for him, not just in the games but also as the leader of the team.
“Cam has been a terrific player for three years, and he has been able to elevate his game every year while fitting seamlessly into the structure of the team,” said Paulsen. “He has just fit in with how we play. He didn’t have to do anything special. He is a guy who has been great at all aspects of the game. He has been able to score, his shooting percentages have been good, his turnover numbers have been remarkable, and he is a really good defender. He’s played like a veteran since day one.
“This year my challenge for him is to be the best player in the league every day, and that means being a dominant player in practice. And that’s new for him. He’s always been the guy who is a very good player but has also been surrounded by other all-conference players. So that’s a challenge for Cam, to have a mindset to be one of the best players in the league, and to be the best player on our team every single day. He’s working on that. The quality that made him such a great guy to play with Mike Muscala is a quality that he has to kind of lose a little bit. He needs to add that aggressive edge to his game. Every great scorer has to have that ‘I want the ball every time’ attitude, but then you have to temper that so it fits within the team philosophy. We also want Cam to be our dominant voice every day in practice and in the locker room. I think he’s embracing that. We want him to take a few more risks on the offensive end.”
Joining Ayers as co-captain in 2013-14 is junior point guard Steven Kaspar. The Tennessee native flourished late last season and finished the year playing some of the best, most confident basketball of his career. His 73 assists were only six off the team lead, despite playing only 16 minutes per game. Kaspar logged six points, six rebounds and six assists in the NCAA Tournament game against Butler.
“Steven was voted a co-captain by his teammates, and that is completely endorsed and supported by his coaches,” said Paulsen. “He has matured a ton, physically and mentally. His approach to the game has also matured. He is exerting his own method of leadership and is playing with much more confidence. I thought his emergence at the tail end of the year last year, to be able to defend and to play more consistently at the offensive end, was a huge key for us. Earlier in his career he had those big ups and downs. He’s playing at a high rate right now, which is what you should expect from a junior. This is really the year when a lot of guys emerge, and it’s exciting to watch him do that.”
Ayers and Kaspar will surely play prominent roles in the backcourt, and seniors Ryan Hill and Ben Brackney along with sophomore Ryan Frazier give the Bison three more experienced guards. Junior Joshea Singleton, sophomore Chris Hass and freshman John Azzinaro have all done good things this preseason, and there are minutes out there to be earned for each of them.
Hill has platooned with Kaspar at the point guard spot for the last two seasons, and their styles are different enough to provide a nice change of pace. Hill enters the year with 99 career appearances to his credit, and he has played a role on three straight championship teams.
“Ryan has been a steady and solid player for us,” said Paulsen. “He has improved every year he’s been here, and he’s improved from last year to this year. He’s not flashy or an explosive scorer, but he has a really high basketball IQ. He is a quiet leader, but he knows what our program is about, and the guys just love him. He has played a lot of big minutes in big games and he’s not going to get rattled. I think he can have a big impact on this year’s team, not necessarily in a scoring capacity, but with his leadership and as a mentor to our younger guards.”
Frazier quickly emerged as a contributor as a freshman in 2012-13, and while he did register three double-digit scoring games, his primary strength was as a defender. Frazier did not start in any of his 33 appearances, but he finished most of them. In tight games down the stretch, Paulsen counted on Frazier to help the team get big stops, and he was a big reason why Bucknell allowed only 57.8 points per game, the 14th-best figure in the nation.
“Ryan was phenomenal for us last year,” Paulsen praised. “He gave us a terrific defensive presence. He was just a bulldog out there, even in the latter half of the year when he was really struggling on the offensive end, we wanted him in the game. His ability to defend Mackey McKnight and Tony Johnson was crucial in two critical wins for us late in the year. The lasting image of him for me is when he dove head-first to get the ball in the Lafayette championship game, and then getting up and making a play. He gives us that. Early in the year he had some double-digit scoring games against some of the higher-profile teams on our schedule, so he can do that. I don’t know that he’ll ever score 15 points per game, but I think he’ll continue to improve and become more consistent on the offensive end. We want him to do that, but never at the expense of being that tough-as-nails defensive guard. Ryan is also a guy with great natural leadership capabilities, and we want him to become a great secondary leader.”
While Frazier’s strength is his defense, Azzinaro brings some flash to the offensive end of the floor. Azzinaro comes to Bucknell from San Antonio, Texas, where he was a prolific scorer at the high school level. He stands just 5’11”, but he has outstanding quickness and knows how to get the ball in the basket, either from the point or shooting guard position.
“John has a high basketball IQ,” said Paulsen. “He is a very good scorer. He’s fast and has a lot of confidence, and that’s a really good combination. His adjustments will be mostly related to his size. He has to learn how to play against size and learn how to maximize his quickness to negate his size disadvantage. His quickness advantage has to be bigger than his size disadvantage. He has to learn how to hit the floaters and mid-range shots, where in high school he could get to the rim whenever he wanted to. And then another big challenge for him is to develop into a complete nuisance on the defensive end.”
Brackney and Singleton bring versatility to the off-ball spots. Both are best-suited to play on the wings, but they can also play down at the “4” position in a smaller lineup. Of the two, Brackney has seen the more significant playing time. He appeared in 29 games as sophomore in 2011-12, and after being limited by a knee injury early last season, he was an important player in some big games down the stretch. He hit two critical 3-pointers in a big February road win over Lehigh that solidified Bucknell’s grip on first place, and then he came off the bench to drain two more big treys as well as the game-clinching free throws in the Patriot League championship game against Lafayette.
“Ben is a very skilled, savvy player,” said Paulsen. “He doesn’t get rattled. Of anyone who I’ve ever coached, for a variety of reasons he’s probably had the least clearly defined role while flourishing in that situation anyway. To his unbelievable credit, he’s proven the ability to come in, maybe without having played a lot, or at all, in the game before, and played different roles and hit big shots. In my opinion, the two most important victories we had last year were the win at Lehigh that kind of put us in the driver’s seat for the regular-season title, and of course the Patriot League championship game against Lafayette. And we don’t win either of those games without Ben Brackney. There were no two bigger victories, and he was terrific in both of them. With the work that he has done, he has positioned himself to get an early crack at establishing himself in a more consistent role. He’s proven to be a reliable and steady performer, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Singleton has shown some flashes of brilliance over the last two seasons. He scored 12 points at Vanderbilt in the second game of his career, and he made some big plays in a win over New Mexico State last season. But that lack of available minutes on a veteran team has worked against Singleton, and last season he was limited to 13 appearances. His incredible athleticism makes him an intriguing option, however, and Paulsen adores his attitude.
“I have so much respect for Joshea,” lauds Paulsen. “He has handled some physical adversity and then not having the type of role that he might have envisioned his first two years, with unbelievable class and work ethic and maturity. He worked tirelessly on his own at his game and wanted desperately that opportunity for more playing time, and yet was 100-percent supportive of his teammates. And that is all of what we are about in our program. He has continued in both regards this fall. He is in here all the time working on his shot and watching film. His energy level, his talk and his focus have been terrific. He’s playing much better and more consistently, and he’s put himself in a position to have a good, solid role this year.”
Hass is another interesting option. He has the potential to be a devastating scorer, as evidenced by his 2,522 points at the high school level. Even in a limited role last season he poured in 20 points in 47 total minutes. There is little question that Hass can score at the Division I level, but the coaching staff has been working hard to get him up to speed at the defensive end. If he can continue to develop in that area, Hass is another player who could be in line for an increased role in 2013-14.
“Chris has made tremendous strides,” Paulsen said. “He is a very talented offensive player. He has the ability to shoot from deep, he can attack the rim off the bounce, and he is athletic and has become more consistent. Last year he was a pretty good catch-and-shoot guy, and he has the potential to be a great one. He’s become more mature in his approach to the game. We want him to be the happy-go-lucky goofy kid that he is, that’s what makes him so special, but he’s making progress on establishing a little bit of an alter ego when he walks onto the floor. His biggest challenge is on the defensive end, but I’ve been pleased with the progress he’s made up to this point.”
With four 1,000-point scorers on last year’s roster, Paulsen was confident in his team’s ability to put the ball in the basket. So a much greater percentage of his practice time was devoted to defense and rebounding. It paid off, as the Bison ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage and No. 4 in field-goal percentage defense, and they conceded more than 70 points in a game only twice all year.
“I’ve never coached defense more intensely than I did last year, because I knew we could score,” said Paulsen. “We probably could have been even better offensively, but I wasn’t as worried about that. If we could defend and rebound, I knew we could be really good, and we were able to do those things. This year we have nobody coming back besides Cam who scored more than three points per game, so this year the first week of practice we spent more time on the offensive end than I ever have. Now we are trying to catch up defensively. It’s a fine line. We have to do some things to be able to score, so offensively we are adding some wrinkles and layers because our personnel is different and our strengths are different. But we have established a clear identity as a team in terms of how we defend, and we don’t want to lose that.”
The challenge of replacing Muscala and Willman in the frontcourt will obviously be enormous, but Paulsen says he doesn’t want the heir apparents to feel pressured to make up for all of that production alone. The most experienced of the returnees is graduate student Brian Fitzpatrick, who is using his fifth year after sitting out in 2010-11 following a transfer from Penn.
Fitzpatrick was typically the first big man to come off the bench in each of the last two seasons, and he had some big games in that reserve role, most notably a 10-rebound performance with Muscala in foul trouble in that key win at Lehigh last season. The lefthander is a strong, physical presence who likely will be thrust into a primary role for the first time in his career.
“Fitzy had an unbelievable year for us two years ago,” said Paulsen. “Last year his numbers weren’t quite as strong, and I attribute a lot of that to him being behind physically coming off the wrist surgery that kept him out for the beginning of preseason. Now his role is going to expand, potentially as much as anyone in our program. To some degree, how well he is able to expand his role will be a factor in our team’s success. He’s got versatility that hasn’t always been displayed based on his role, but he’ll be able to display it now. At the same time, he has to continue to embrace being our best low-post scorer and being a dominant rebounder. If he can do both of those things, he will have a very good year and our team will have a very good year. I don’t want him to think he has to be Mike Muscala. I just want him to be the best version of Brian Fitzpatrick that he can possibly be. If he plays to his potential, he is really good. We just need him to be focused on the two or three things he can do at a high level.”
Sophomore Dom Hoffman played in 29 games off the bench a year ago, primarily in relief of Willman at the power forward spot. He had a 10-point game at home against Lehigh, and he was able to contribute while making the adjustment to the size and quickness at the Division I level.
“Dom has really made some nice strides,” Paulsen commented. “He is a tremendously skilled forward. He is a smart player off the pick-and-roll and is a good mid-range jump-shooter. He is a very good passer and can help facilitate our offense. I often said that Joe Willman was the smartest player I have ever coached. On the offensive end of the floor, Dom has a chance to catch and even exceed Joe. Where Joe set himself apart is that he was also one of the smartest defensive players I have coached. Right now Dom has to make significant strides defensively and on the glass. He’s done a lot of work on his body and his conditioning level is better. He’s going to have a ton of opportunity to play, and I think he is poised to make some more significant strides.”
Junior Cory Starkey, sophomore Matt Banas and freshmen D.J. MacLeay and Ben Oberfeld are also battling for time up front. Starkey has been extremely dedicated to improving his game over the last two seasons, and he could be in line for a more prominent role if he continues to develop throughout the preseason.
“I would have similar comments about Cory as I would about Joshea Singleton,” said Paulsen. “Cory is relentless in his work ethic, he is a tremendously supportive teammate, he is an absolute joy to be around, and he is playing much better. He’s worked tirelessly on his body and is stronger and more athletic than when he got here. He’s improved his ability to score around the basket, and he’s also extended his range out to the 3-point arc. He’s good off the bounce, so he gives us some versatility at the four spot to be able to score inside or outside, and to guard bigger bodies and smaller, quicker players who often populate the four-spot in our league.”
Banas joined the Bison as a recruited walk-on last season, and Paulsen has been impressed with his development over the last year.
“Matt has worked extremely hard and has made huge improvements,” noted Paulsen. “He is stronger and more athletic and consistent. He’s put himself into the equation, which is a tribute to his work ethic and his improvement.”
MacLeay and Oberfeld enter the program with good strength and toughness. Adapting to the speed of the college game is their biggest challenge.
“D.J. is tough, strong and competitive,” Paulsen said. “When he gets his legs under him, he is a very good pick-and-pop jump shooter. And when he gets his legs under him, he has a good low-post game and is a good rebounder. Right now the pace of the game is a huge adjustment for him. So he finds himself having to rush his mechanics to get a shot off. In practice he’s had some days when he’s looked phenomenal and some days not so much, which is very typical of a freshman at this stage. He is a dedicated, serious guy. I don’t think there is any question he is going to be a very good player, it’s just a matter of when.
“Ben Oberfeld is a very big, strong physical presence,” added Paulsen. “He has a high basketball IQ, especially on the defensive end. He has very good feel defensively. He is a good rebounder. The offensive part of his game lags a little bit behind the defensive side at this point, but he’s been working very hard. And again, the adjustment to the pace of the game is something that he’s going through.”
With Boston University and Loyola Maryland joining the Patriot League this year, four extra conference games and an additional layer of Patriot League Tournament games have been added to the schedule. League play will now begin on Jan. 2 — the Bison host American in the PL opener — and there is no longer a full week off at the midpoint of the conference calendar.
All 10 teams will qualify for the Patriot League Tournament, with the bottom four seeds meeting at home sites in opening-round games on Monday, March 3. The winners of those games will then move into the quarterfinals two nights later.
Paulsen knows that the league is wide open this season, and a play or two could make a huge difference. Ironically, even though losing high-quality talent and personalities like Muscala, Johnson and Willman stings, Paulsen thinks the team as a whole will come to appreciate its accomplishments more this year than in the past.
“Last year when we beat Lafayette to win the championship, I felt relief more than joy, and that’s not right,” Paulsen admitted. “I guess that’s part of the deal in our league, and I’d rather be in that situation every year where you are trying to win with a really good team. I had a ton of fun coaching that team every day, but in a twisted way, expectations will be different. We were so focused last year on the pot at the end of the rainbow that we didn’t always stop to enjoy our successes. This year I think there will be more of a sense of accomplishment, and we won’t get caught up in our successes, but I hope we will enjoy them a little more.
“We took everyone’s best shot for three years, and this year I’m sure everyone is going to want a piece of us, but we are not going to be the preseason favorites. That’s okay. Let’s figure out who we are in the non-conference schedule, and then let’s try to be really good in January and February and March. What we can’t do is get hung up if we lose a game here or if a guy doesn’t play well there. Do we respond and get better, or do we wallow in despair? If we can respond to mini bouts of adversity, then we can be very good.”