If you want to see the normally even-keeled Bucknell head coach Nathan Davis get agitated, ask him about his team’s chances of defending its Patriot League championship.
“We are not defending anything,” Davis insists. “The 2017 championship is ours permanently, nobody can take it away from us. This is a new team with a new roster and a new personality. We are going to start the year 0-0 like everyone else. Our approach to this season is no different than any other year. If we work hard every single day and keep getting better, then we can be where we want to be at the end of the season.”
The good news for Davis — and for Bison fans near and far — is that the bulk of the nucleus returns from last year’s squad that finished 26-9 overall, 15-3 in the Patriot League, and captured PL regular-season and tournament titles on the way to its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Bison bring back all five starters, 10 of their 12 rotation players, 92.3 percent of their scoring and 90.2 percent of their rebounding from last year. Four All-Patriot League picks are back, three of them coming from a senior class that has already accounted for 3,026 combined career points.
Comprising the senior class is reigning Patriot League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Nana Foulland, who will once again patrol the paint; First Team All-Patriot League power forward Zach Thomas, who was the 2017 PL Tournament MVP; and Second Team All-Patriot League point guard Stephen Brown, who is already one of the top assist men in school history. Guard Kimbal Mackenzie, a Third Team All-Patriot League choice last season, joins center Nate Sestina and guards Nate Jones and Matt O'Reilly in a junior class that brings tremendous leadership ability in addition to talent. Sophomores Avi Toomer, Bruce Moore and Ben Robertson have already played key minutes in big games.
“We seem to have the right focus,” says Davis. “Our guys understand that the only thing you can control is your focus and effort each day. They hold each other accountable. It’s a vocal group and they really go after each other on the court, but they also really enjoy each other’s company off the court. Joe Dumars had a great quote that said, ‘On good teams coaches hold players accountable; on great teams players hold players accountable.’ That describes our team.”
With the core group back from a team that went 15-2 at home a year ago, capped by an 81-65 win over Lehigh in the Patriot League championship game at raucous Sojka Pavilion, Bucknell was the unanimous top choice in the Patriot League preseason poll.
“Everything is in place that you would want to have,” Davis says. “We have talent, depth, versatility at both ends of the floor, and a group that works really hard and is unselfish. No doubt one of our biggest strengths is our depth. Every player on our roster is good, and we would not hesitate to use any one of them in a key situation. We want to use that depth to our advantage.”
Foulland is quite literally the centerpiece of the group. At 6’10” and lean and strong, Foulland is the Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year. Last season he became just the second player in league history to sweep Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. (The other was also a pretty good Bucknell center named Mike Muscala). Foulland averaged 15.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while ranking eighth nationally in field goal percentage at .630. That was the third-best figure in school history. He also led the Patriot League and ranked 36th nationally in blocked shots. An NABC First Team All-District 13 selection, Foulland showed the country his stuff in the NCAA Tournament when he logged 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots against West Virginia.
“Nana is a great player, but what people might not realize is just how hard he works at it,” Davis says of Foulland, who enters his final year with 1,222 career points, 18th-most in school history. “He is in the gym all the time, and he is so strong. He has improved each year, and now he is almost impossible to guard one-on-one in the post. Defensively, he affects the game in so many ways. Not only can he defend the post and block shots, but he moves his feet so well, which allows him to defend ball screens on the perimeter.”
Foulland is paired up front with Thomas, giving Bucknell one of the best frontcourts around. The 6’7” Thomas is what baseball scouts might refer to as “toolsy”, as he is a weapon in every phase of the game. Thomas led the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game a year ago. He was the only player in the Patriot League to rank in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists, and he was also the only player in the league to rank in the top 10 in field goal, free throw and 3-point shooting percentages. Thomas averaged 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the Patriot League Tournament en route to MVP honors. He was on triple-double watch on several occasions last season, including in the PL final against Lehigh when he tallied 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while going over the 1,000-point mark in his career.
“Zach is as good a player as there is in our league,” says Davis. “He is just a dynamic offensive player. He has unlimited range and can score at all three levels. He sees the floor like a point guard, he understands the game extremely well, and he is also a much-improved defender.”
While Foulland and Thomas provide the power, Brown is the team’s pilot. Already eighth on Bucknell’s career assists chart, Brown ranked third in the Patriot League with 4.8 assists per game last season. His 2.65 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 28th nationally. Brown has also become a first-rate scorer. He had 21 double-digit scoring games a year ago and averaged 11.1 per game. He led the conference in free-throw percentage as a sophomore, and then last year shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range to rank ninth in the league. A confident big-game performer, Brown had 12 points without a turnover in the PL final against Lehigh, and he had 18 points, four assists, five steals and only one turnover against West Virginia’s uber-high-pressure defense in the NCAA Tournament.
“Stephen is extremely underrated,” Davis offers. “He is the head that runs our body at both ends of the floor. He can score, he can get others involved, and defensively he’s a real pest. He has gotten much stronger every year, and now he really shoots the ball with confidence.”
The junior Mackenzie lines up next to Brown in the backcourt, adding yet another vocal, veteran presence on the floor. One of the league’s most improved players in 2016-17, Mackenzie was third on the team in scoring at 11.9 points per game. He ranked second in the league in free-throw percentage (.832), fifth in three-point percentage (.410) and 11th in overall field goal percentage (.464). The latter figure was the best in the conference among guards. Most impressively, Mackenzie was at his best in the second halves of big games. He had an 18-point second half in a win over Richmond; 19 in the second half to spark a rally from 13 down to beat Navy; 18 in the second half of another comeback win at American; and 14 in the second half in the Patriot League title game against Lehigh. In the NCAA Tournament against West Virginia, he hit 5 of 7 from 3-point range and led the team with 23 points.
“Kimbal has made himself into an extremely confident and talented player,” lauds Davis. “He is a very good 3-point shooter, he can make pull-ups, and he can finish through contact at the rim. Kimbal is just a really tough competitor.”
Also featured in the junior class is Jones, who brings good size and range to the wing position. Jones started the first 13 games of last season, then missed nine games with a foot injury and came off the bench the rest of the way. He shot just under 40 percent (.391) from 3-point distance and played a key role as a versatile reserve.
“Nate is a long, athletic wing who can stretch defenses with his shooting range,” says Davis. “He is also a tremendous help defender and a smart team player.”
Sestina would be a starting frontcourt player on most teams, but for now he mixes in with the all-leaguers Foulland and Thomas to keep everyone fresh. Extremely nimble and athletic for a 6’9”, 247-pounder, Sestina averaged 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 31 games a year ago. He ranked 12th in the Patriot League in blocked shots and had five double-digit scoring games, including a season-high 12 points at Wake Forest.
“Nate is a versatile big who keeps getting better and better,” praises Davis. “He has really improved with his back to the basket. He shoots the three well, and he can face up a defender and put the ball on the floor to make plays.”
Rounding out the junior class is O’Reilly, one of the league’s top deep threats. O’Reilly ranked fourth on the team with 34 treys last year, despite playing 10.9 minutes per game. All but two of his field goals and all but five of his attempts came from beyond the arc, as O’Reilly comes in off the bench ready to fire from deep. He had a couple of 12-point games last season against Norfolk State and Fairfield, hitting four triples in each game.
“Matt is a prototypical sharpshooter,” says Davis. “He has a quick release and deep range, but he has also improved his ability to put the ball on the floor.”
When Jones suffered the mid-season injury, Toomer jumped into the lead group and started the final 22 games of the season. Defense was his ticket to playing time. Toomer demonstrated early in the season that he could lock down the opposition’s top-scoring guards and wings, and he ended up playing just a shade under 20 minutes per game. Toomer’s breakout performance came in the November win at Vanderbilt, when he played 20 minutes off the bench, hit a couple of tough layups, and held his own defensively against two of the Southeastern Conference’s top guards.
“Avi has the unique ability to impact a game without having to score a point,” says Davis. “He can guard multiple positions, and he is smart and competitive. Now he is rounding out his offensive game, where he is much more confident attacking the basket.”
Moore gives the Bison an energetic, 6’8” forward to bring in off the bench. He played in every game last season and was a big part of the rotation, particularly once conference play started. He had a 14-point game against Navy in the regular-season finale and proved to be a good defender, rebounder and shot-blocker.
“Like Avi, Bruce can defend multiple positions at a very high level,” says Davis. “Bruce is a very competitive player. He has improved his ability to score off the dribble and with his back to the basket. He can play both the 3 and the 4, both offensively and defensively.”
Robertson saw action in 27 games off the bench as a freshman, including 23 in a row during one juncture. He had a season-high nine points in the Butler game and totaled 26 on the season. “Ben is very bouncy and can finish at the rim with the best of them,” says Davis. “He has really improved his jump shot and is shooting it with a lot more confidence and consistency.”
With all the returning talent, it might be easy to overlook the addition of three first-year players, but Davis feels that this freshman group not only has great promise down the road but will also contribute this season. Jimmy Sotos, a cagey 6’3” guard from the Chicago area, will spell Brown and Mackenzie at the point and shooting guard spots.
“Jimmy has been impressive throughout the preseason,” Davis says. “He can score at all three levels and has great size for a point guard. He is very good with ball screens and is a good defender. He has a very bright future.”
John Meeks, a 6’6” forward from Burlington, North Carolina, is a tough, hard-nosed player with a good–looking lefty shooting stroke. Coming out of a high school program that went 119-6 in his four years, Meeks can play both on the wing and at the power forward position.
“John has really worked hard on his shot, and it has paid dividends so far,” says Davis. “He is really strong and can finish around the basket. He is also a very quick learner, which is something that coaches love.”
Springtime signee Paul Newman brings good strength and size at 6’9”, 244 pounds. Newman is a product of the powerful Roman Catholic program in Philadelphia, and then he averaged 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds for St. Andrews School in Rhode Island during a postgraduate year in 2016-17.
“Paul has been a pleasant surprise in preseason,” Davis praises. “He is an excellent offensive rebounder and has good touch around the basket. Eventually we think he will be able to step out and shoot it with consistency. For now, getting the chance to get in there and bang with Nana and Nate Sestina every day in practice is going to pay dividends for him down the road.”
Rounding out the freshman class is walk-on guard Jordan Sechan, who started his prep career at St. Luke’s School in Connecticut before finishing at New England power Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts.
“Jordan is a good guard who can knock down open shots,” says Davis. “He is a great addition to the program, and going up against guys like Stephen Brown and Kimbal Mackenzie is a good experience for him.”
One of the interesting dynamics to watch early in the season is how the Bison respond to what is quite possibly the most challenging non-conference schedule in school history. Right off the bat, Bucknell plays four straight road games against Monmouth, Arkansas, defending national champion North Carolina and Maryland, all in the first eight days of the season. The Bison will later face four teams from the Atlantic 10 — VCU, Richmond, La Salle and Saint Joseph’s — as part of a non-league slate that features 13 opponents who combined for a 284-156 (.645) record last season, including a 155-79 (.662) mark within their respective leagues. Five opponents played in the NCAA Tournament, and nine played in one of the postseason events. Bucknell’s non-league opponents produced an average final RPI ranking of 95.2 and an average Pomeroy rating of 108.7.
“We obviously have put together a very challenging schedule, but that is what guys come to expect when they come to Bucknell,” Davis said when the schedule was announced in August. “They want to compete against the best night in and night out. This is a tremendous opportunity for our team to grow together and compete against historically great teams. By design, our non-conference schedule is going to put us under adversity, expose some areas of weakness that need to be corrected, and get us ready for the demands of our league schedule.”