By William Bowman
LEWISBURG -- There is no question Holy Cross, with guys like R.J. Evans, Andrew Keister and Devin Brown on the floor, have some of the most talented players in the entire Patriot League. But, as Bucknell did a year ago, the Crusaders have struggled under a first-year head coach and now the Bison faithful are hoping their long-time Patriot League rivals wait at least one more game to piece things together.
One of the annual rites of spring in the Patriot League -- Bucknell and Holy Cross playing in the conference tournament -- comes to fruition when the Crusaders visit Sojka Pavilion tonight for a nationally televised quarterfinal. Tip-off is set for 7.
Tonight's meeting marks the 13th time in 20 all-time Patriot League tournaments -- and the eighth time in nine years -- the Bison (14-16) and Crusaders (8-21) will hook up in the postseason. The two teams have combined to win six of the last nine league titles and although they never met before the formation of the Patriot League in 1990, this will be their 53rd meeting in the last 20 years.
But the history is just that, history. It will have no effect on tonight's game, which features the second-seeded Bison and seventh-seeded Crusaders, who split games at home this year. The winner gets either Lafayette or Colgate on Sunday.
The Bison come into the tournament surging, winners of eight of 10, including five-point victory over the Crusaders on Valentine's Day where BU led by 20 midway through the second half. Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, facing the Crusaders in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season, knows his team will have to put a top effort forward to advance to Sunday's semifinals.
"We are going to have keep playing at a high level because Holy Cross can put five double figure scorers on the floor at the same time," said Paulsen. "They can hurt you a variety of ways. Evans and Brown are big-time scorers. (Andrew) Beinert is shooting around 50 percent from three and Keister is just a load inside."
The Crusaders do pose a significant offensive threat thanks to some top-tier talent. Sophomore R.J. Evans, last year's Rookie of the Year, averages 13.2 points a game while Andrew Keister, a two-time Patriot League selection, is a beast on the glass, averaging 10.4 points and 9.4 boards a night.
In addition, sophomore guard Devin Brown is tied with Evans for the team lead in scoring and he comes off the bench.
It all makes for a dangerous combination, especially if the Crusaders finally live up to their billing as preseason favorites in the conference.
"We've improved the second half of the year," said first-year coach Sean Kearney. "Every month we've gotten better. We've certainly improved on defense and now we need some more consistent play so we can play more consistent as a group.
"We have guys who average 10 a game, but they might score 16 points one night and four the next."
Kearney said he thought the pressure of being the preseason favorite, along with the transition under the new coach weighed on the Crusaders early on. Fortunately, things start anew this evening in Lewisburg.
"We get to wipe the slate clean and start over," Kearney said. "We can throw out the stat sheet and start again."
The Bison actually don't want to start again, they want to build on their surge in the second half of the year. At one point the Bison were 6-14 and trailing by double digits at Colgate. Bucknell rallied to win that game behind G.W. Boon and they've lost just two more times since then.
The young Bison, who became the first team in league history to put three freshmen on the all-Rookie team, will get their first taste of playoff action tonight and they do so without an established star.
While Holy Cross has five players who average double figures, not a single Bucknell player does. Freshman Mike Muscala, the first Bucknell player to earn All-Patriot League and All-Rookie nods in the same season, leads the way at 9.9 points a game. In addition, seven other players average at least 5.6 points a night.
Just how balanced have the Bison been? The team's top five scorers -- Muscala, Darryl Shazier, Bryson Johnson, Patrick Behan and Bryan Cohen -- have all scored between 263 and 295 points while taking between 222 and 242 shots.
In a five-game span from Feb. 5 to Feb. 21, six different players led the team in scoring and nine different players have had at least one 10-point game and seven different players have led the team in scoring at least once.
"Our low point came in early January," said Paulsen. "After we scored 40 points at Dartmouth, I didn't think we'd break 50 the rest of the year. But the guys have really responded and worked extremely hard.
"I've never heard of team without a double-figure scorer, but this has been an enjoyable team to coach."