LEWISBURG — Just days after the worst season of his coaching career ended, Dave Paulsen hopped a plane to Minnesota to get a look at the future.
Paulsen and his assistants had already signed a class that would eventually produce three Patriot League All-Rookie players the next season. But the Bucknell men's coach wanted to get a close look at assistant coach Dane Fischer's prize recruit, a 6-foot-10 inch center from Roseville named Mike Muscala.
"I went and saw one of his state playoff games and I was just giddy," Paulsen said Wednesday as his team prepared for this afternoon's Patriot League title game. "I watched and thought, Wow! We've got something special. We just didn't know how quickly it was going to come together."
It came together pretty darn quickly. Muscala started 16 games as a freshman, averaging 10 points and five boards to earn All-Rookie honors from the league. But that was really just the start.
As a sophomore this season, Muscala evolved into the focal point of Bucknell's motion offense and every opponent's defense. He has averaged nearly 15 points, eight boards and two blocks a game, and became Bucknell's first Patriot League Player of the Year since Charles Lee in 2006.
And now he's got a chance to reach the ultimate goal he had when he chose Bucknell: Lead the Bison to the NCAA Tournament.
"Hard to argue it could have gone any better," Muscala said of his first two years in Lewisburg. "I've been blessed to have the coaches and teammates I do. I am in a very fortunate situation here to be part of a team like this."
On the trail
Fischer, himself a Minnesota native, saw Muscala play in tournaments and initiated the recruiting process which would eventually lead Muscala to Lewisburg.
"Coach Fischer called me the day after he saw me the first time and I talked to coach Paulsen and we just connected right away," said Muscala. "They wanted what was best for me, but I sort of knew right away this is where I wanted to be."
So Muscala and his family researched the university. They learned as much as they could about the basketball program and, more importantly, the academic program Bucknell offered.
Like a lot of people, Muscala's foundation of knowledge about Bucknell centered on the Bison beating Kansas in the 2005 NCAA tournament. The rest the family found on its own and through talking with the coaches.
"I did some research and found it was a great fit for me," said Muscala, a management major who was an All-Academic pick this year as well. "They had a great arena, great fan support and great academics, and I didn't mind the distance."
"Dane did a phenomenal job building a relationship with Mike," said Paulsen. "He and his family did their homework, too. If you're looking for a campus, great academics and a chance to be an impact player at a place where they really care, this is a good place."
Fischer's pitch obviously worked because the day Muscala and his family visited Bucknell for the first time, in August before his senior year of high school, he committed.
"The first time I came I committed," Muscala said. "I knew right away. Looking back maybe it was little early, but I knew what I wanted."
Paulsen remembers when the Bison were recruiting Muscala because he was bit under the radar heading into his senior year. Paulsen and Fischer, though, both felt Muscala was something special.
"I knew we had a good one when we were recruiting him in the summer and I'm seeing all these kids going to big-time programs and this Muscala kid is way better," Paulsen said. "He was just a little under the radar."
Under the radar or not, Muscala has been a perfect fit in Lewisburg.
Paulsen said Muscala is not content to be good, he wants to be great, and that rubs off the rest of the team, particularly with the way he performs in practice.
"He's a phenomenal player, but he competes so hard every day in practice, is so passionate every day in practice," said Paulsen. "He has raised our level of competitiveness and intensity in practice. And when your best player is your hardest worker you've got a chance to be a pretty special team."
Muscala and his teammates are a win over Lafayette away from an NCAA Tournament berth. The Patriot League championship tips at Sojka Pavilion today at 4:45 p.m.
Is he surprised just how fast success has come, especially considering he arrived in Lewisburg on the heels of Bucknell's 7-23 season in 2008-09?
"I came to Bucknell to go the NCAA Tournament," he said. "This year, everything has come together. We have trust in every player on the court. We don't care who scores; just get stops on defense and get the job done."