Senior Trio Adds to Bucknell Basketball's Rich History
Feb. 21, 2013
By Thomas Walter, Bucknell Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Four years ago when Mike Muscala, Bryson Johnson, and Joe Willman came to Bucknell as freshmen, instead of going to their orientation activities they went straight to Gerhard Fieldhouse and played basketball together until the lights went out.
"I remember playing in the Fieldhouse in the dark that night," says Muscala. "It was fun. I left that night thinking to myself that it is going to be a good four years."
And what a four years it has been. The individual awards and recognitions for Muscala, Johnson and Willman are tremendous. But, one of the most noteworthy ones is that they are each members of the 1,000-point club. It is only the second time in the 118-year history of the Bucknell basketball program that three members of the same class have each scored 1,000 points.
"They're a real special bunch," says Bison fifth-year head coach Dave Paulsen. "They've allowed me to coach them hard, they're unselfish, they're team oriented guys, and they've worked their rear-ends off. You can't ask for anything more."
But, as much as these three seniors appreciate what they have accomplished, making it into the 1,000-point club and other numerous individual awards, they understand that the team comes first, and they still have more they want to accomplish. Together.
When Paulsen was hired at Bucknell in May 2008, he knew he was going to be pressed for time to find recruits so he hired close friend, and one of his former assistant coaches at Williams, Dane Fischer to help try and piece together a recruiting class.
Colin Klebon, a local product from Shamokin, Pennsylvania, signed with Bucknell. Klebon, who majors in civil engineering, was one of the top players to come out of the Coal Region of Pennsylvania and has become a solid four-year contributor for the Bison.
Things really started to take off for Paulsen and Fischer when the two coaches then found Muscala, a tall, skinny kid from Roseville, Minnesota.
After Paulsen watched the tape of the 6'11" forward, he was impressed. But, when he finally saw Muscala play, it was an easy decision to offer him a scholarship on the spot. When the Muscala family came to visit later that August, only a few days after Paulsen had finished moving into his Lewisburg home, Muscala gave a verbal commitment to play for Bucknell. The chips had begun to fall into place.
Next came Johnson, who was flying a little bit under the recruiting radar.
"This kid had all the intangibles. Everyone talks about Bryson's shooting ability, which is amazing. But, he had everything a coach was looking for in a player," says Paulsen. "He has the leadership, the passion and the charisma."
Johnson, who was also being recruited by Cornell, was originally on the fence about Bucknell. Once he came for his official visit, however, Johnson loved the school and committed a few days later.
Willman would be last and the toughest to convince. When Paulsen first saw Willman at a camp, he hardly ever touched the ball. Paulsen was skeptical at first
"I didn't know if this kid could even play," Paulsen remembers. "When I saw him play the next weekend, however, I just loved how hard he played, how much he competed, and how smart he was."
When Willman came to visit Bucknell, he still remained doubtful. He ended up taking official visits to a total of five schools and was not ready to commit to Paulsen and the Bison. But, a few days after his official visit to Bucknell, Paulsen got the verbal commitment he wanted from Willman, and with it, he had the bulk of his first recruiting class
"We were trying to revitalize this program which had been so tremendously good," explains Paulsen. "We were trying to recreate this culture of excellence. The passion that Bryson brings, the intensity that Mike brings and the intelligence that Joe brings, those intangibles were as important as their very tangible basketball skills."
A frustrating freshman year followed. Muscala, Johnson, and Willman were asked to carry the load for much of the season for a team that finished below .500. While all three were named to the Patriot League All-Rookie Team, the Bison were bounced out of the Patriot League Tournament in the quarterfinals.
"There needed to be some time to get acclimated to the new system," says Willman. "We had three freshmen playing regular minutes, which is pretty crazy to think about. But, we have been able to grow each and every year."
The evolution of the team began sophomore year as there was a tremendous growth from all three players. The trio led the Bison a 13-1 regular season Patriot League record, a Patriot League title, and an NCAA Tournament berth.
Muscala led the way as he was named Patriot League Player of the Year, averaging 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He was only the third sophomore ever to earn the award. It was the start of many more awards to come for Muscala who will have the chance to become the Patriot League's fifth 2,000-point scorer, Bucknell's all-time leading scorer, and a member of the 2,000-point - 1,000-rebound club.
Winning the Patriot League Championship was a very special moment. Even though the team lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion, Connecticut, Muscala, Willman and Johnson all agree that March is their best memory in a Bison uniform to date.
"Winning the Patriot League sophomore year is easily the best moment of my career," says Johnson. "To see everyone at the school get so excited, and for all the time and effort we put into practice to pay off was extremely special."
During their junior year, the trio picked up right where they left off. Another 25-win season and Patriot League regular season title followed, but they fell short in the Patriot League Championship as they ran into C.J. McCollum and a tough Lehigh team that went on to beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
Muscala scored his 1,000th point that season in late December against future Patriot League member Loyola (Md.). Johnson would need a couple months to join his freshman-year roommate in that exclusive club, but would do so as the team went on an inspired run in the NIT, upsetting No. 1 seed Arizona.
With one more year remaining, Willman would have a chance to join his fellow classmates in that club, but all three of them knew there was something larger at stake to play for.
As their senior season winds down, Muscala, Willman, Johnson, and the rest of the Bison have emerged as one of the front-runners to win the Patriot League title once again. With their continued excellent play, the expectations have grown and grown for this team.
"The legacy of this team is all anyone is talking about," Paulsen says. "That can really weigh you down. But, we can't control everything. So we're stressing to not leave anything on the table. I want our guys to play with a chip on their shoulders, rather than playing with the weight of expectations on their shoulders."
The team played extremely hard through the first half of the season as they were 13-3 entering Patriot League play. Two games later, Willman joined his fellow seniors as he scored his 1,000th point Jan. 16th, 2013. Only one other class in Bucknell history has three members in the 1,000-point club.
The recruits of the 1986-1987 senior class were the first three individuals from the same class to score 1,000 points. Chris Seneca scored 1,082 points, while Mark Atkinson scored 1,029 points and Mark Allsteadt registered 1,020 points.
"It's a big accomplishment," says Willman. "It's even more special that all three of us have accomplished this."
Their paths to 1,000 points all differ. Muscala was the skinny kid who transformed himself into one of the most dominant big men in the country and a likely NBA draft pick. Johnson has gone from the team's best jump shooter to the sixth man and is now back to the starting two guard with an expanded versatility to his offensive arsenal. Willman, always the smartest player on the floor, has developed a strong post game and the ability to defend smaller players around the perimeter while continuing to hone his deadly mid-range jumper.
Perhaps even more special than all their accomplishments, is that through their sacrifices and growth as players, they have been able to resurrect Bucknell back to one of the top mid-major basketball programs in the country.
"I think we got the school excited about basketball again," says Johnson. "We have the best student fan-base in the league and it's incredible to play in front of."
As special as the three seniors all being in the 1,000-point club was, with the season beginning to wind down the team is getting closer and closer to the ultimate goal of winning another Patriot League Championship. But, Muscala, Willman and Johnson all know the job isn't finished yet.
"We were all so heartbroken after that game to Lehigh that we did not need to say anything to one another. The three of us just knew we did not want to have that feeling again," says Muscala. "We just have to go out aggressive and leave everything on the court. If the other team is better than us, so be it. But, we have to play hard enough so we have no regrets."
In order to win their second Patriot League Championship, the Bison's three 1,000-point scorers will have to do all the little things right, play their hardest leaving nothing out on the court, and finish their career just as they started it that first night in the dark of Gerhard Fieldhouse: together.