LEWISBURG -- A couple of days into his second season at Bucknell, Dave Paulsen watched his freshman power forward for a few moments at practice. It was there he realized as good as he thought Joe Willman was, he was actually even better.
"You never know what's going to happen with a guy, but we felt like there was no way he wasn't going to be good," said Paulsen. "He knew he was a smart player, but about a week into practice, you're like 'Oh, my God, his basketball IQ is just off the charts.'
"He might be the smartest player I've ever coached."
That is saying something considering where Paulsen is now and where he's been.
And while guys like Bryan Cohen and Mike Muscala grab headlines, Willman goes about his business. He brings his lunch pail to the court every day, does his job, and Bucknell wins.
Willman has turned in two dominating performances in the opening round of the Patriot League tournament and one more win puts the Bison back in the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.
Bucknell (24-8) hosts second-seeded Lehigh (25-7) in a much-anticipated league title game tonight at 7. The game will be televised live on CBS Sports Network.
Paulsen said when he and his coaching staff were looking at players to bring in as part of his first recruiting class at Bucknell, it was apparent early on that Willman was going to be one of the centerpieces.
The coaches never backed away for one minute when Willman broke both wrists during his senior year after he was undercut dunking the ball and they have been rewarded.
Willman started the first game of his freshman season and 77 of the 97 games he has played in over his career. He has played in every game since he arrived on campus as part of a recruiting class that including Muscala, sharp-shooter Bryson Johnson and local product Colin Klebon.
"He was a guy that, even in the recruiting process, we just loved the way he played because he played so hard," said Paulsen. "He also played smart. He can score the ball, he can rebound, he guards physical post guys and smaller ones and twos.
"Plus he's such a great facilitator with the ball. We want to play through him as much as possible."
But there is something else Paulsen loves: Willman's toughness.
The best story about Willman's toughness was the one told by St. Francis (Pa.) coach Don Friday earlier this year when he said if you are a kid and some teenager steals your Halloween candy, you tell Willman and they will never take anything from you again.
"He does so many things that don't show up in the stats," said Paulsen. "He's a great passer and keeps so many plays alive. Early in the Lafayette game he stepped up and took a charge.
"In my 18 years as a coach I've probably had two other players who have had his basketball IQ and toughness. It's certainly a rare combination."
Willman said before practice even started that freshman season the newcomers to the program got together to spend as much time as they could getting to know each other on and off the court.
It was there that Willman and Muscala started to figure out how special their tandem could be inside for the Bison.
"Right away you could tell what kind of player Mike was," said Willman, a junior from Tinton Falls, N.J. "He's got soft hands and a great touch, plus he's 6-11, which is just an added bonus."
It was there that Willman began to learn how to play with Muscala. They were both part of the Patriot League All-Rookie team that first season and this year Muscala was a first-team All-Patriot pick while Willman was a second team honoree.
In 32 games this year, Willman is averaging a career-high in points (10.8 and rebounds (4.9).
When the Bison hit a bit of an offensive funk down the stretch in the regular season, Paulsen looked to Willman to produce more on the offensive and he has stepped up in a big way.
Willman is averaging 13 points and six boards a game over the last six games. He has scored 18 points in both Patriot League tournament games, despite playing just 53 minutes.
"We have so many great players that on any given night someone can get hot," said Willman. "It makes it awesome to play with guys like that. We've all gotten more comfortable in our roles over the past three years."
"We've really challenged Joe in the last month or so to step his offense up and he really has," said Paulsen. "He's been terrific in the tournament."
There is one hang-up, however.
For some reason it seems like Willman has an aversion to scoring 20 points. In 97 career games with the Bison, Willman has scored at least 10 points 35 times and 16 or more 10 times.
He enters tonight's final with 777 career points and could join Cohen and Muscala, as well as Bryson Johnson, as members of the 1,000-point club at Bucknell. Yet with all those statistics, he has never scored 20 points in a game for the Bison.
"I don't even care," Willman said with a smile. "People give me stuff about it afterwards, but we're winning, so it doesn't matter at all."
Paulsen would like to see him do it someday, though.
"Wednesday night would be a great time for that to happen," he said.
Sports editor Bill Bowman covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.