---- — By William Bowman
The Daily Item
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- From the day Bryan Cohen walked across the stage to get his diploma last spring, Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen knew his team was going to focus on defense more than it ever had.
As successful as Bucknell has been under Paulsen offensively -- five players over the last two seasons have scored at least 1,000 points -- the backbone of the program, as it was under Pat Flannery before, has been at the other end of the floor. Paulsen, who won a Division III national title at his alma mater, Williams College, has long known any good team that wants to be great has to start on the defensive end.
But entering the 2012-13 season the Bison had to start without Cohen, the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Patriot League history. It had a nice piece to build around in returning center Mike Muscala, but everything else was going to have to change, or at least be tightened up.
The Bison have done that and then some.
Heading into today's NCAA tournament second-round game against Butler, the Bison are one of the top defensive teams in the nation. They allow 57.5 points a game, 14th best out of 345 teams in Division I, and opponents shoot just 37.8 percent from the field, seventh best nationally. Both of those numbers are better than last year when Cohen was on the roster and the Bison allowed 61.3 points a game on 39.7 percent shooting.
"We have to come out and be focused defensively," said senior center Muscala, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. "We've been doing a pretty good job of that all year and on offense (we need to) just go out and play our game."
Having someone like Muscala to help out has allowed the Bison to hold their own. With Muscala in the back to defend the hoop, Bucknell does not take a lot of chances in its man-to-man defense, which is why it ranks second to last in the entire country in steals.
But the Bison rebound the ball -- they are almost plus six each game and Muscala is among the top 5 nationally in rebounding -- and help out when needed.
"Team defense has been our emphasis all year and we've gotten a lot better," said junior Cameron Ayers earlier this season. "It's a huge relief to know we have Mike back there. We know if we slip up we have the big fella back there to block and alter shots.
Having that security blanket back there is definitely a good feeling."
While Butler does not score a ton of points, it is very balanced across the board on offense. All five starters average at last 9.9 points a game, led by Rotnei Clarke's 16.7 points per game.
Veteran center Andrew Smith, who will go toe-to-toe with Muscala, averages about 11 points and six rebounds a game.
"They're an incredibly physical team," said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen. "They maybe don't have that reputation, but they're very, very physical defensively and they're very, very physical offensively in terms of the amount of screens they set.—¨