Fans of college basketball in Indiana may already be familiar with Butler’s second round opponent in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon. After all, Bucknell (28-5) started their season with off with a 70-65 victory over in West Lafayette over Purdue. But with wins over New Mexico State, La Salle, and near 66-64 loss to Missouri back in January, the #11 seeded Bison and Patriot League champions find themselves in a position not even they expected.
“We were thinking we were going to be a #12 or #13 seed,” said Sophomore guard Steven Kaspar. “So every time that came up we were really excited, but then we saw we were playing Butler, and we feel like that would be a good match-up for us.”
Kaspar is part of a Bucknell squad that set a Patriot League record 28 wins on the season, thanks in large part to being a team that isn’t lacking in size or strength down low. Bucknell Senior center Mike Muscala is 6’11, and averaged 19.0 points and 11.2 rebounds on his way to being the Patriot League Player of the Year for the second time in his career. Muscala is joined by Senior forward Joe Willman, who is 6’7 and averaged 10.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, and with the combo of the two the Bison are known to pound the paint pretty well throughout the game.
Though the big man down low in Muscala likes to share the ball, and the credit of the team success, whenever he can.
“We run a good amount of sets and we have a bunch of different guys who can shoot it,” said Muscala. “I think in certain times I will demand it, but the strength of our offense is that we do a really good job sharing the ball and I think we do a good job playing balanced between that.”
Muscala seems to be the biggest focus for Butler’s defense on Thursday afternoon, and deservingly so.
“I think one thing to know is that he is just a really good passer,” said Butler Senior center Andrew Smith. “And he has great role players that play with him, and there are a reason that some of those players are averaging 10 to 12 points. He really opens up the court for everybody, and he’s not selfish at all.”
Bucknell guards Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers have practically had a field day all season long picking apart defenses from behind the arc thanks to the defensive pressure down in the paint. Johnson is seventh among Division One players in career field goals made with 321, and Ayers is a 2013 First Team All Patriot League selection that averaged 12.5 points per game.
But the meal ticket to Bucknell’s success this season is the 57.5 points per game the team let up on defense.
“What we try to do well is similar to the things that Butler tries to do well,” said Bucknell Head Coach Dave Paulsen.
“I think we have been a very good team in not letting teams score in transition against us. I think we have done a very good job keeping teams off the glass, we try to make teams make tough, challenged jump shots, and we have been a good team at not turning the ball over. Those are the types of things that if you do well, you are going to have a chance against anyone, and we are going to have to do those well tomorrow afternoon.”
The Bison locker room had nothing but compliments for Butler’s effective and physical style of play, and the respect was given back by everybody in the Bulldogs locker room on Wednesday afternoon.
“They are phenomenal,” said Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens.
“The four seniors that have combined for 5,600 points are such accomplished kids and those guys are champions. They are winners, they are great teammates, and they deserve all the adjectives to describe them. If we weren’t playing them, I would be looking at them saying watch out somebody else. But we have to play well to win, it is going to be a hard game.”
Tip-off between Butler and Bucknell takes place Thursday afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky at Rupp Arena at 12:40 p.m.